YSU women’s basketball team begins practices

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s that nagging feeling you get that something might be wrong, like that used car with more than 130,000 miles which has been in for repairs more than on the road.

John Barnes can’t shake that feeling. Instead of car troubles weighing on his mind, it’s his basketball team.

The Youngstown State University women’s basketball coach saw three of his five starters succumb to season-ending injuries last year as the Penguins mustered nine wins — a recurring theme of this YSU team.

Monday was the team’s first official practice, when things began to unravel last season as redshirt junior shooting guard Nikki Arbanas had her season end before it began. A mis-step, her ACL tore and YSU was down a 5-foot-7 shooting guard.

Redshirt junior Sarah Cash, a 6-foot-1 Lordstown native, has had her fair share of knee issues. Those kept her from playing all but a handful of games early in the 2016-17 season. Last year’s senior Kelsea Newman also suffered an ACL tear to start the season against American.

“After last season, it’s pretty much every practice I’m nervous about someone getting hurt,” Barnes said. “I’m trying to coach them up as I always would. Hopefully we can get through each day without a serious injury.”

Cash has had nagging knee issues and was to see her doctor this week. Otherwise, there’ve been just a couple of minor bumps and bruises.

Barnes and Arbanas were upbeat about Monday’s practice opener.

“Everybody is excited where it can go,” Arbanas said.

This is a team which gave up an uncharacteristic 74.5 points per game, going away from being one of the best defensive teams in the Horizon League — averaging around 60.

That goes back to two of the team’s defensive stalwarts — Arbanas and Cash — being out of action. Having both back matters.

“That alone raises our level,” Barnes said.

It gives returning players like senior point guard Indiya Benjamin confidence as well.

“She doesn’t have to carry quite as much of the load as she had to last year,” Barnes said.

Neither does Cash, who was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in the 2015-16 season as the Penguins won 21 games and made a postseason appearance.

Sophomore Mary Dunn was the Horizon League Freshman of the Year last season and improved her game in the offseason, showing she can be a valuable asset in the post this season.

YSU has six players on the roster 6-foot and taller. Dunn is 6-3.

“Mary has done a great job in the offseason working extremely hard to get in great shape,” Barnes said. “The fact we don’t have to rely on one or two post players, we can count on all of them to go in there and give minutes is a great thing. The less minutes they have to play every game, the stronger they are at the end of the season.”

That mentality goes for the whole team, which continued in Monday’s practice.

“If we’re tough mentally, we’re making the right decisions,” Barnes said. “We’re doing the right things on offense. We’re doing the right things on defense. We’re not breaking down in tough situations — all of those things. We talk about getting better every day in each practice, staying focused, listening, learning and getting better every day.

“If you do that, by the time the season rolls around and tournament, if you are getting better all the time, you should be very good by that time of the year.”

YSU’s first game is Nov. 10 at Pittsburgh.

Arbanas is cleared for five-on-five play, but currently doesn’t have the stamina to go for a full two hours. With repetition and more drills, she said she’ll get there and be back to playing shape.

“I’ll know I’ll be ready for the Pitt game, and that’s what matters right now,” Arbanas said.

It’s something she couldn’t say at this time last season.