By Marc Weems
With basketball season right around the bend, the Youngstown State University women’s basketball team wants to build on back-to-back postseason appearances. This is the first time in school history that the women’s team has made a postseason tournament in consecutive seasons.
On Wednesday, the team announced starting guard Nikki Arbanas will miss the season due to a torn ACL. YSU head coach John Barnes said loss of Arbanas will be tough because she is the best 3-point shooter on the team and the team’s best defender.
“It’s a tough loss, no question, because Nikki does so many things well,” Barnes said. “This isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve been coaching for a lot of years and I’ve seen [injuries] happen before. We have 16 players on the team, so we have a lot of depth this year. I’ve already seen players step up in practice and I’m confident in them.”
The Penguins went 21-13 and made the Women’s Basketball Invitational last season. The Penguins made it to the semifinals of the tournament before losing to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The Penguins have eight freshmen and sophomores on the team. This year’s freshman class added six players to this year’s roster.
“This year, our team chemistry is really good,” guard Alison Smolinski said. “Like coach Barnes was saying, we have a much deeper team as well, and we are going to have to step up our defense this year. Collectively, without Nikki [Arbanas], we are all gonna have to step up and all work together.”
Last season, forward Janae Jackson was the only senior on the roster. Kelsea Newman, now a senior, said the team tried to integrate the new players onto the team as quickly as possible.
“Over the summer, the freshmen came in for summer classes and we just integrated them from the start,” Newman said. “We all hang out as a team so that when we are out on the court, we know everyone in basketball and personally. So I think our chemistry is very high.”
YSU had a smaller roster last season, mostly sophomores and freshmen, and the Penguins had to deal with injuries to players like guard Indiya Benjamin and Smolinski. This season the roster increased to 16 players. Barnes said that he has no doubt that some players will step up and fill in nicely and the team has more depth in case of injury.
“We are getting to a point where we have almost as many upperclassmen as lowerclassmen,” Barnes said. That normally equates to winning more games. Our biggest issue was depth with only 12 players last year and now with 16. We had injuries and that always hurts a team.”
Benjamin said the team will need to continue to improve, and expects the team to build off of the tournament run in the WBI.
“We just have to keep going and try harder. Of course, we had a good season last year and the year before that,” Benjamin said. “There is still a lot of room for improvement and we get better on so many levels and in so many aspects of the game.”
Benjamin and Arbanas joined the program during the 2014-15 season. Benjamin and Arbanas have played a majority of their YSU career together, but this season will be the first time they won’t play together for an entire season.
“Not having Nikki affects me a lot,” Benjamin said. “Like [Barnes] said, we have a lot of newcomers and returning people that are going to be to take the responsibilities that Nikki had. We are going to move forward knowing that this was a detrimental loss but we have no choice.”
The Penguins will open their season on Nov. 11 against American University. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Beeghly Center.