Horizon League champion Youngstown State, led by coach Christy Cameron, earned its first berth in the Division I NCAA Regional Softball Tournament.

The prize: An opening-round tilt against defending national champion and ninth-ranked Michigan (40-13) at Alumni Field in Ann Arbor on Friday.

The Westmont Hilltop graduate and former St. Francis coach is optimistic.

“We are going against a Big Ten school and they may overlook us,” Cameron said. “We are the underdog now. We were the underdog going into the conference tourney and we enjoyed that. We are working right now on getting some scouting reports on them. We are getting a lot of information and we are preparing for them. It’s important for our girls to stay loose.”

Two seasons ago, the Penguins finished 36-17-1 and set school records for wins (36), consecutive wins (nine), runs scored (220), hits (375), doubles (73), triples (19), home runs (33) and RBIs (196).

Cameron said a season like this, in which the team has gone 22-25, is far more enjoyable than one full of accolades, but without tournament play.

“I would take this tournament appearance over any records. This is definitely sweeter,” she said. “The year that we set some records was a good year and an enjoyable year. But, this year we were able to go out and finish some things. Everything came together at the right time. We used the games leading up to the conference tournament to prepare for this tournament.”

Cameron admits that the youth of her squad may be a factor, but the seniors have valuable experience.

“We are a younger group. I only have two seniors starting,” Cameron said. “This group of seniors, it was their freshman year when the program really started heading in the right direction. It was special to win (the Horizon League championship) this year and do it at home.”

Youngstown State is playing its best softball right now. The Penguins were on the road for the final three weeks of the regular season until hosting the conference tournament.

“The kids just played phenomenally (last) weekend. We played four good games and our pitching was also phenomenal. We came up with some timely hitting and some good situational hitting.”

Cameron said the team is embracing the underdog role against Michigan.

“They were kind of disappointed that they were (in the Horizon League Tournament) as a sixth seed. They worked hard to prove they weren’t a No. 6 team and we beat the No. 1 seed (Illinois-Chicago) twice to get where we are. That shows a lot.”

The seventh-year YSU coach emphasized that it’s a special year for the Penguins. But, she would like it to be even more special with a win on Friday.

“This year is special because this is something that this program has never done before. We had some kids step up and we overcame a lot of obstacles. It was a complete and total team effort this season. It took everyone to make this possible and it will take everyone again.”

Ethan Blough can be reached at 532-5080 or eblough@tribdem.com.

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