By Marc Weems
In what is now John Barnes’ sixth season as head coach of the Youngstown State University women’s basketball team, there is a different feel with this team than previous teams.
It will be the first time in over four years the Penguins will play a game without former point guard Indiya Benjamin. She is first in school history with 629 assists.
“Obviously, it is always exciting to get rolling again,” Barnes said. “With the new NCAA rules, we pretty much practicing all year round. It’s just about hours. Back in the old days, Oct. 15 was the big day. Now that you are practicing all year round, there isn’t quite the same excitement.”
The rules from the NCAA have changed to show that a team can do athletics-related activities for no more than 20 hours per week. They are allowed to practice up to four hours per day, while games count as three hours no matter the length.
“I thought the energy was good and the players were working hard,” Barnes said. “It was a fun day. It’s huge for the newcomers to be able to have that summer experience and the fall experience of full team practices.”
The Penguins bring together a smaller roster than last year’s bunch with just 13 players. They have seven returning players including seniors Sarah Cash, Melinda Trimmer and Alison Smolinski.
“It’s a lot of leadership,” Smolinski said on being a senior. “You have to be vocal. We are the ones that have the experience. It is all about teaching the younger girls what we do and how things go around here. They are doing a good job handling everything.”
YSU welcomes four freshmen on the roster with Deleah Gibson, Taylor Petit, Gabby Lupardus and Madison Mallory. Amara Chikwe is a redshirt freshmen as well.
“We are a much smaller group but Coach Barnes keeps emphasizing that he likes that as a team,” Smolinski said. “We’ve become closer as a team and have a better team chemistry going. We have that. It’s been good. We just need to keep working hard and learn how to play with each other.”
Smolinski missed a lot of last year due to a foot injury. She started the first 11 games and played in 16 before being limited to seven minutes over the final 21 games of the season.
With that injury, Chelsea Olson and McKenah Peters saw playing time that they might not have had before. Smolinski saw the light at the end of tunnel to her injury.
“Injuries are the worst so you never want to have that happen to anyone,” she said. “That kind of happened my freshman year and sophomore year with Nikki [Arbanas] going out. You just have to step up and hold everyone accountable. They’ve done a great job. It’s great for them to have experience.”
“We all know that there isn’t going to be another Indiya. Indiya is her own person,” Smolinski said. “We are just trying to come together and play with each other. Mel [Melinda Trimmer] has really stepped up. Same with Chelsea. We don’t know who’s going to take that position yet but everyone had working hard.”
Not just for the players but for Coach Barnes as well, not having Benjamin will be tough.
“That kind of experience is hard to replace and talent. She is the all-time leader in assists,” Barnes said. “I’m excited about our players that are going to be filling her spot. It is always fun to have a new group coming in to work with.”