By: Steve Wilaj
Heidi Schlegel knows Liz Hornberger pretty well.
In fact, the Penguins women’s basketball teammates of four years both arrived at Youngstown State University in 2010. So when Schlegel talks about Hornberger, she has credibility.
“I love having Liz as a teammate,” Schlegel said. “She’s been one of the hardest workers I’ve ever played with in my life, she brings us all together and…”
Before her next remark, Schlegel laughed a bit, realizing what she was about to share.
“She can get a little crazy at times,” she added. “Sometimes, we come in the huddle and she starts yelling at all of us. But we just take it for what it is. That’s Liz, and it gets us fired up and ready to play.”
That “a little crazy” approach, always-intense attitude and supreme leadership is what the senior guard provides on a daily basis.
It’s likely even more important than her sharp-shooting and defensive prowess. And it’s definitely a key ingredient that helps the Penguins succeed, as they sit atop the Horizon League with a 5-0 record.
“She doesn’t let the lows get too low or the highs get too high,” said John Barnes, first-year YSU women’s head coach. “She keeps us believing and keeps everyone focused and headed in the right direction.”
Traits of a leader
On Jan. 5, right after YSU lost its final non-conference game and dropped to 4-9, Hornberger gave one of her typical — yet head-scratching — optimistic quotes.
She called the Penguins — who were obviously struggling and playing shorthanded — the “potential front-runners” to win the Horizon League. It was a questionable comment at the time, but a brilliant one in hindsight.
It was similar to her YSU Women’s Basketball Media Day prediction before the 2012 season. That day, Hornberger said YSU would be a top team in the conference, leaving reporters to chuckle at the comment. But the Penguins finished 23-10 and placed second in the Horizon League.
“Being a leader, I’m never going to sell our team short or show any kind of doubt,” Hornberger said. “Once I do that, it starts seeping into everyone else’s mind, and people start second guessing themselves. That never leads to anything good.”
Schlegel knows that attitude is irreplaceable.
“It’s good to have somebody that confident and positive,” Schlegel said. “I think we all need to be that way and Liz brings that to our team.”
The 5-foot-7 Hornberger also supplies 9.7 points and 3.4 assists per game in her starting role. Last season, she started every game she played in, averaging 7.5 PPG while playing 32 minutes per contest.
But as former Penguins head coach Bob Boldon knows, her contributions stretch beyond the statistics.
“Liz had the best understanding of what we were trying to accomplish out of anybody that I’ve coached,” said Boldon, now the head women’s coach at Ohio University. “A lot of times we would lean on her and she would give the input to what was working and what wasn’t working. So a coach on the floor is a very accurate description of Liz.”
It’s a role she embraces.
“Just keeping everyone’s spirits up and trying to have them keep my spirits up,” Hornberger said. “Just talking and getting us organized offensively and defensively — that’s my biggest role on the team.”
At Muhlenberg High in Reading, Pa., Hornberger finished her four-year career as the school’s all-time 3-point shooter. But it wasn’t necessarily her jump shot that convinced Boldon to make Hornberger his first YSU recruit in June 2010.
She caught his eye in AAU competition playing for the Philadelphia Belles, a squad that ultimately reached the 2009 U.S. Junior Nationals finals.
“With the conditions of that league and team, you have to be pretty tough,” Boldon said. “Not necessarily physically tough, but mentally tough.”
And by Boldon’s assessment, Hornberger passed with flying colors.
“So I think that’s what sold me on her,” he said. “There was some question if she would be athletic enough to play in our conference, but there was never any question if she was tough enough. I think she’s definitely proven that she is.”
Maybe it’s that underdog label and doubt of her abilities that makes Hornberger a perfect fit at YSU, where she’s been at the forefront of the program’s revival. The Penguins are 32-19 in the past two seasons with her as a starting guard.
But she also learned some valuable lessons in her first two seasons at YSU, the last of a 12-year streak of losing campaigns.
“Working hard is really, really underrated,” Hornberger said. “So spending a lot of time in the gym the first two years got me to where I am today. You have to realize that even though the negatives are gonna happen, you have to focus on the positives.”
Boldon certainly noticed her hard work.
“She started making strides her sophomore year and continues to do a fine job,” he said. “She had high expectations for herself, her teammates and the coaching staff. She had the idea that if we all did our jobs, we could win and no game was too big for us.”
Something to prove
Considering it’s his first season at YSU, Barnes can’t help but be thankful to have such a respected senior captain by his side.
“It’s been great,” Barnes said. “She is the one above everyone else that I can go to to find out the pulse of the team. She does a great job of leading by example, and not only by example, but also by really encouraging her teammates.”
It’s a group of teammates that has a special place in her heart.
Having lost sensational senior Brandi Brown to graduation and talented sophomore Shar’Rae Davis to injury, it’s also a group that doesn’t receive much hype.
“I really want to win with this group,” Hornberger said. “Everyone’s telling you that you can’t do it. But I want everyone to realize how special this group is, because we are more than what everyone said we were last year.”
Whether or not they continue to win and accomplish Hornberger’s ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA tournament, the senior guard/player-coach/”a little crazy” captain will definitely be leading the Penguins to the finish line.
“I think we play extremely hard and sometimes really smart,” Hornberger said. “I think if we play smart all the time, I can see us winning. I don’t know where all the confidence comes from, but I think it’s about never settling for anything less than first place.”