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New faces, same goals: Penguins gearing up for 2021-2022 season

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Chelsea Olson, left, and Mady Aulbach high-five before a game against Purdue Fort Wayne last season.

YOUNGSTOWN — It was an offseason of unease, to be sure.

Having lost significant firepower from a season ago, Youngstown State women’s basketball coach John Barnes acknowledges things were “nerve wracking” for a bit.

Gone from last season’s 10-8 team are leading scorer Mary Dunn (16.4 points per game), leading rebounder and Horizon League Freshman of the Year Nneka Obiazor (8.1 rebounds per game, 15.3 points per game), McKenah Peters (9.2 points per game) and Maddie Schires (4.7 points per game). All four factored into the Penguins’ usual rotation during games, and each appeared in all 18 games for YSU.

But having reloaded his roster with transfers and new recruits, Barnes says he’s excited about where things stand as he enters his ninth season at the helm of the program.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen with the transfer portal and all that stuff,” Barnes said. “I’m really excited about what this team could do and the possibilities. I just think the way (the players have) worked, the way they’ve come together, their chemistry and all that stuff gives us a chance to compete with the best teams in our league.”

Among the new recruits are Kayiona Willis (Reford, Mich.), Athena Hocevar (Willoughby Hills), Haley Thierry (Willoughby Hills) and Tenleigh Phelps (Fairland, Ind.).

Via the transfer portal, YSU also added Lindsey Mack (Fairleigh Dickinson), Megan Callahan (Robert Morris), Paige Shy (Marshall), Lilly Ritz (Wheeling) and Lindsey Linard (Duquesne).

Having a more typical offseason this year as compared to 2020 helped all those newcomers transition into the program, Barnes said. In addition to the usual offseason workouts, the Penguins had team-building events each Saturday to help develop the chemistry.

“With so many newcomers, summer is invaluable to bring them all together and have them (here) — they’re living together, going to class together, practice and all that stuff,” he said.

Barnes added, “It was exciting because I could watch them as they came together. We have a really close-knit group this year, and it’s a lot of fun.”

The Penguins also feature some valuable returning pieces in Malia Magestro (5.1 points per game), Mady Aulbach (2.3 points per game) and fifth-year senior Chelsea Olson (10.4 points, 4.7 rebounds per game). Those three each appeared in all 18 of last season’s games, and Olson started in all of those, as well.

Barnes said Aulbach has “really stepped up her vocal leadership” as preseason practices have ramped up.

“She’s always worked extremely hard on the court and led by example in that sense, but I feel like she’s stepped up in terms of being vocal and leading in that sense,” he added.

Callahan, who is no stranger to YSU after having faced the Penguins in league play while at RMU, also has helped lead, too, Barnes noted.

And, of course, the experience Olson adds as the team’s lone fifth-year senior is beneficial, too.

“She’s been around a long time,” Barnes said of the guard. “She’s been around YSU and the Horizon League, and she’s been very successful. To have her experience — not only with YSU but with the Horizon League and with postseason play — is just a very solid foundation for the newcomers and transfers to build off of.”

Barnes said the roster has meshed well since beginning practices a week ago, but that with the new NCAA rules on practices, the team has been able to practice “pretty much all year-round now.”

As a result, YSU was able to have its fundamentals on offense and defense in place heading into the preseason.

Now, he said, “it’s kind of a continuation of what we’ve been doing, but with a higher level of urgency and intensity, and obviously length because now we’re allowed 20 hours (of practice) a week instead of just eight.”

Between being able to hit the ground running, the pieces Barnes has in place and the leadership the team has, the Penguins’ goals remain the same.

“Our goal is to win a championship, whether that’s the regular season, tournament or whatever,” Barnes said. “It’s definitely achievable. You have to have a lot of things go right, stay away from injuries and all that stuff, but I’m really excited about what we can do.”

The Penguins begin their 2021-2022 campaign Nov. 9 at Eastern Michigan.

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