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Coming together a huddle at a time

YOUNGSTOWN

You can see it out on the grassy area, yards ahead from the starting line.

Clusters of athletes wearing their tank tops, shorts and sweatbands, or other thermal wear — depending on the conditions.

Each cross country team gathers before the race. Sometimes the coach has a few words to rile up their team. Others meditate and reflect. Either way, it’s a time to gather.

Then there’s those teams that have that swagger because they’ve been there before. I’m talking about Maplewood and McDonald’s boys cross country teams. Each school had seven state championships.

The gathering is more than staged, it’s something real about both teams.

These teams spend time together, you can see that when they run in a pack, helping each other as the race goes along.

There’s something to be said about team unity, it’s something the Youngstown State men’s basketball program is trying to replicate.

First-year coach Jerrod Calhoun is seeing how difficult it is to change the culture of a YSU team in a barren wasteland where complacency has been the norm for way too long. Three decades of basketball based on .500 being seen as a championship season.

Hard to stay upbeat when you’re 2-5 and the only two wins are against non-Division I teams, but Calhoun isn’t listening to naysayers. He’s remaining focused, true to what he believes because he knows this is a process.

Turning this thing around hasn’t been easy, as expected.

Injuries have happened, slowing the progress. Senior point guard Francisco Santiago, the vocal heart and soul of this team, is playing with a brace on his knee, remnants of a hyperextension in the offseason. He’ll not be at 100 percent this season, a major setback to YSU instituting a new up-tempo offense and pressure defense.

Sophomore Jeremiah Ferguson, who rarely played last season even though he was one of the better athletes out there, is essentially a freshman. He’s playing with a broken nose, something suffered in the opener against Kent State. Ferguson, whose getting adjusted to his new protective mask, just came back this past weekend.

Going without an experienced point guard is like the New England Patriots being without Tom Brady. You muddle through it, but it’s better when your leader is out there.

The fundamentals need work as well. Free throws and missed layups, two things costly in the team’s latest three-game junket in South Dakota.

YSU was in the gym Monday after a lengthy film session, shooting free throws and working on layups.

Confidence. Muscle memory. Two things needed to be a great free-throw shooter.

The one thing these Penguins, who have a handful of players with previous Division I experience, take away from this trip is spending lengthy amounts of time as a team — something great teams do on a consistent basis.

You can see Calhoun collapse his hands together during any break in play, encouraging his players to huddle. He and his staff constantly preached that during the offseason. Huddling was a must, so was rushing to a fallen teammate. It’s having one another’s back. That’s what great teams do.

Ask McDonald. Ask Maplewood. They are cohesive teams who help one another. You could see that this fall as McDonald climbed from a team ranked 10th during the season and earned a state runner-up. That’s what winners do.

This YSU team is showing signs of cohesiveness, but it’ll get stronger as the season progresses and the Penguins take their lumps on the road. It’ll make them a stronger team — a closer one at that.

Calhoun desperately wants a winner at YSU. He hasn’t seen losing since he was playing for Cleveland State. That was in the early 2000s.

Winning has followed his coaching career. He believes it’ll happen here.

“Get this disease that’s happened around here of losing,” Calhoun said. “Get it out of here. Get it out. Get it out.”

With each unprompted huddle and as this team knows how to come together and act as a cohesive unit, it takes a step to ridding itself of a losing culture which has plagued YSU for far too long.

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