Our Towns

Diehard YSU Fans Hope for Repeat

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In his four years as a punter for the Youngstown State University Penguins, Ryan Martino never played in a national championship game. So when the opportunity arose to travel to Frisco, Texas, to see his alma mater play for the trophy, he jumped at the chance.

It was everything he hoped it’d be, from meeting former players at the airport to touring the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium to sitting a few rows from the action in Frisco.

“It’s standing room only with people at the fences. For the players, it gives you chills to come out and look at it,” he says. “It was great to see a lot of fans resurrecting their 1990s championship sweatshirts and apparel. It’s something that’s well preserved. People take pride in Youngstown State and you can tell because they have shirts from ’91, ’93, ’94.”

Throughout last season, the Hively family discussed going to Frisco should the Penguins advance. The minutes after Kevin Rader’s catch against Eastern Washington University as time expired were a buzz of phone calls among family members, Becky Hively recalls.

“I probably spent three days trying to plan for people. Thirty people is a lot to plan for,” says the office manager of Hively Construction in Canfield. “Finally, I just figured that if we get our own plane, the price is a wash and it’s once in a lifetime. My grandma is 87, so how many more?”

The Hively family chartered a plane to fly to Texas to watch the Penguins.

The family flew to Texas the morning of the game, went to the tailgate lot, saw the game and returned that night.

For Nick Chretien, it was the perfect experience to round out his senior year at YSU. He and friends bought tickets as part of a student bus trip YSU organized. They arrived in Texas the day before kickoff and spent the afternoon visiting landmarks in nearby Dallas, including Dealy Plaza.

Despite the lengthy bus trip to Texas and being 1,200 miles away, he says, “It still felt like Youngstown.

“It was pretty cold. None of us packed accordingly, not expecting it to be colder there than it was in Ohio,” he says.

“YSU fans were completely outnumbered, but we won the tailgate. … People were excited just to have the opportunity to see the game.”

And with the experience of a lifetime under their belts, these three fans fully expect to be back again in the near future, already glancing at the first Saturday of January, when the final two teams meet in the FCS playoffs.

“We’re going back. We’re going back,” Hively says without hesitation. “From what we’re hearing, it sounds like it’ll be another great year. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Adds Chretien, “Ideally, you want to say another trip to Frisco. Any year, that’s the goal. But we’ll get another solid season of football.”

And while he couldn’t attend the championship game, Lyden Oil Co. Vice President Paul Lyden says he expects the same type of team that made it so far last season.

“I expect these young men are going to be professional and represent the university, city and fans of Youngstown,” says Lyden, also a trustee of the Penguin Club. “I see a very unified team that has a track record behind them of being dedicated. They are dedicated athletes.”

That track record, Martino continues, is crucial in making a return trip. Playoff games are of a different caliber than regular season games.

Ryan Martino, a former punter for YSU, met up with other former players at the game.

The quality of opponents is better – they did qualify for the postseason, after all – and the win-or-go-home mentality is ever present.

“The core of this group has been there and knows what it takes. It wasn’t luck that got them there. It was talent,” he says. “Once you’re in the national championship you understand what it takes to get there. … We saw that in the ‘90s. A lot of those guys overlapped classes, went there and knew what it took.”

For those who joined the crowd of 14,000-plus in Frisco, the atmosphere stood out. Fans of both teams – those who attended report that James Madison University had more at the game, although there was a contingent of North Dakota State University fans cheering for YSU – showed up early and were loud for most of the game.

Combined with the turnouts for watch parties across the Mahoning Valley, all expect a more enthusiastic fan base.

Attendance for games at Stambaugh Stadium has dropped since the 90s. It seats 20,650, making it the 25th largest stadium at the FCS level among the 124 schools. Average attendance last year was 12,444, although the two home playoff games drew just 5,322 and 8,066.

“We need this city to wake up and be part of this movement for the Youngstown State University Penguins,” Lyden says. “We need butts in the seats to support our Penguins. The biggest thing in the world is when a player turns around after they scored and they can’t talk to the guy next to them because the crowd is so supportive.”

Pictured: Nick Chretien traveled to the championship game as part of a bus trip offered by the university. Photo courtesy of Nick Chretien.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.