By Dan Hiner
John Barnes, the head coach of the Youngstown State University women’s basketball team, has gradually improved the program since taking over in 2013.
The women’s basketball team is coming off one of the best seasons in program history following the 2014-2015 season. The Penguins finished with a 21-11 record and 9-7 in the Horizon League.
YSU participated in the NIT for the second time in three years but was eliminated during the first round after a 72-54 loss to Duquesne University at the Beeghly Center in March.
“That post season experience is crucial. We’re getting an extra week, two weeks, three weeks to practice. We’re getting to know each other, and our chemistry is improving,” forward Kelsea Newman said. “The better the competition, the more experience we’re getting, and I think that’s only going to help us in the future.”
Entering this season the Penguins lost their top two scorers, Heidi Schlegel and Latisha Walker, to graduation, and the already young roster will have to pick up the slack in the scoring department.
“Heidi and Tish, they were fantastic,” Newman said. “They were there whenever you needed someone to talk to; they were there whenever you needed help learning where to go during a certain situation. They really helped all the returners to learn what to say and what to do in certain positions when someone asks you where to go.”
YSU has a talented freshman class coming into the season. The four freshmen include point guard Melinda Trimmer, guard Alison Smolinski, guard/forward Jill Blacksten and forward Marissa Brown. All four were members of the all-Ohio basketball team.
Trimmer was named the Ohio Division II Co-Player of the Year last season, and Smolinski was named first-team all-state along with Blacksten. Brown was a third-team all-state selection.
Brown and Blacksten could help the Penguins on the boards. Both are 6-foot-2-inch forwards and could help YSU get rebounds following the loss of Schlegel and Walker. YSU was a smaller roster last season and the size differential was evident during the team’s losses to the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne.
“I’m going to say our front court is going to be our biggest challenge because it’s such an unknown right now,” Barnes said. “Sarah [Cash] got some time last year and played well, and Morgan [Olson] got some time last year and played well. Then we have Marissa Brown, a freshman, who’s got great size and ability, but again hasn’t had any time. Jill Blacksten [has] great size and she can kinda play inside and out. All those things — who plays the best and who does the best when they’re in there and they’ll get the minutes.”
Barnes said the team hasn’t participated in five-on-five drills much this season, but the freshmen reported for practice early in the year to participate in drills and learn the playbook. A set rotation hasn’t been solidified to this point, but Barnes expects most of the roster to participate early in the season.
“I think we had a great summer,” Barnes said. “The freshmen come in the end of June. So they had a couple months, or a month and a half, before school started to get used to the strength and conditioning and our offense and some of the defensive things we like to do. We talk a lot about getting better everyday, improving everyday and they’re really taking that to heart and doing that. So it’s exciting to see.”