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Penguins’ recruiting persistency paying off

A scholarship roster spot was available. Jerrod Calhoun and his Youngstown State University men’s basketball staff had Plans B, C, D and E in place.

Jelani Simmons entered the transfer portal on March 18. By March 20, Wheeling Park (W. Va.) High School’s Alex Vargo verbally committed to the Penguins.

Olamide Pedersen decided to transfer out of YSU on March 25. By April 6, Orangeville Prep’s (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) Shemar Rathan-Mayes verbally committed.

Both officially signed on Wednesday, giving YSU 13 scholarship players on the roster.

Calhoun, associate head coach Jason Slay and assistant coaches Chinedu Nwachukwu and Ethan Faulkner are busy recruiting, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The collective group cannot have potential recruits on campus, meet in person or see AAU games, but the Penguin coaches have other ways to fill their roster.

Mentor High School junior Luke Chicone, a 5-10 guard, made a verbal commitment to YSU. He averaged 19.7 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game for the Cardinals. He had a season-high 39 points in a 76-72 double overtime win over Medina on March 11 in a Division I regional semifinal.

Michael Lucarotti, a 6-foot-4 guard from Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep made a verbal commitment as well. He averaged 14.3 points and seven rebounds per game for the Ramblers.

Both Chicone and Lucarotti are juniors and officially cannot sign until mid-November.

“Recruiting is like shaving,” Calhoun said. “If you’re not doing it every day, you’re appearance is going to look sloppy. Recruiting is the lifeblood of the program. We have to recruit every day. We’ve got to continue to build our brand. We’re constantly recruiting every, single day, especially while we’re quarantined. Now we’re getting a jump start on the 2021 class. Over the phone has been really good.

“Now we’re going to start digging into the video because we feel the AAU season is going to be canceled. We’ve still got a job to do. We’re going to lose a bunch of seniors next year. We’ve got to replace a lot of guys with the 2021 class, constantly watching the videos and making the recruiting calls. We were ready for it because we recruit every day.”

Two players leave a mid-major program. First thoughts are usually, get a junior college player who can come in and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it works, while other times it does not.

Calhoun said YSU has built it the right way, not looking for quick fixes.

He wants players to come to the Penguins program “with a chip on their shoulder.” Calhoun said through skill development, practicing and hard work, they can get better at the collegiate level.

All five of YSU’s recruits — Vargo, Rathan-Mayes, William Dunn, Myles Hunter and Cheick (pronounced Shake) Traore — are high school recruits.

They are part of a 2020-21 season returning a bulk of its team from an 18-15 season.

“Collectively, we’ve gotten better each and every year,” Calhoun said. “You grow with those guys. Each year, guys are getting better. You’re seeing the progress from Garrett (Covington), Mike (Akuchie), Naz (Bohannon), Darius (Quisenberry), some of the guys that have been in the program. Those are the type of guys you want, guys you can develop, guys you can work with.

“From a fan-base standpoint, the fans really like watching and growing with our team. They like seeing the development. It is getting harder and harder with the transfer portal because players do have more options now to transfer. I think the guys that are here really do believe in the system, really want to win a championship for the city of Youngstown, for our team, for our community, for our university. We’re really happy with where we’re at.”

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