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Phillips, Penguins face many challenges

This probably wasn’t an easy decision. Then again, the Penguins had their reasons.

The Youngstown State football team chose to end its season without playing the final game — a rescheduled contest — last weekend against North Dakota. It made sense to most, except for maybe the Fighting Hawks, who were on the playoff bubble (they made the postseason anyway).

Still, YSU had had enough. The Penguins battled through a 1-6 spring season. They played more Missouri Valley Football Conference games than any other team going into the final week. They showed major signs of progress — especially through the first few games — and went toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the nation, but they were beat up, physically and mentally, by the end of it all.

For starters, starting quarterback Mark Waid didn’t play in the Week 7 loss to Missouri State, and his backup, Joe Craycraft, was injured most of the season. Considering YSU was out of the playoff picture, it didn’t make much sense to risk further injury at any position, let alone the most important spot on the field.

That only seemed to be part of the reason first-year coach Doug Phillips decided enough was enough. He saw a young, inexperienced team with a new coaching staff develop in several areas over two months. But while his team fought tooth and nail against teams ranked first, fifth, eighth, 11th and 15th in the nation, Phillips watched other league foes (Illinois State and Western Illinois) quit on their seasons. Indiana State opted out of the spring altogether.

Most teams had several weeks of their league schedules canceled due to COVID-related issues. In fact, heading into its matchup with YSU, North Dakota hadn’t played a game since March 20, essentially giving them four weeks to prepare — and rest up — for the Penguins. It was a competitive advantage that was hard to overlook. So, too, was the fact that the teams that canceled the remaining portion of their seasons could start altering their focus to the fall.

Sure, YSU could have done the same and canceled its remaining schedule weeks ago, but the MVFC created a plan for the spring season months ago — a plan that 10 teams agreed to follow — and Phillips and the Penguins lived up to their end of the bargain. Some others took the easy road out, and that didn’t sit well with Phillips, a man of his word who teaches his players similar values.

“We (teams in the MVFC) met a lot, so I thought everyone was going to stick together and stay with it,” Phillips said on April 13, just one day before an announcement was made to cancel the final game. “So, I wish there was some sort of penalty because some can see that as an advantage, not playing.

“For us, the only way you get good at football is by playing, and these young men hadn’t played football in a long time.”

That’s part of what made canceling so difficult, but the Penguins won’t have long before they play again, as fall camp is just a few months away.

YSU already had a big challenge to recover from the spring and get ready for the fall, and the news that came out earlier this week won’t make life easier. The Penguins were hit with multiple NCAA sanctions — including being put on probation for two years — because of several rules violations committed under former head coach Bo Pelini.

Pelini and two staff members recruited off campus without completing the coaches’ certification test for the 2019-20 academic year. The university also agreed it failed to properly monitor its football program during this time. It’s a bad look for the university and the program.

While Phillips had nothing to do with it, he suffers the consequences. In addition to probation, YSU was stripped of three official visits during the 2021-22 academic year, given a two-week ban on unofficial visits and all recruiting communication, and had its evaluation days reduced by three.

As if a pandemic and a random spring season weren’t enough, Phillips has even more to deal with now. He has repeatedly talked about the importance of responding to adversity in a positive manner, and the mettle of he and his staff will be tested in that regard just as much as their players.

The next few months won’t be easy. There’s no question that players are going to transfer out, especially with the new NCAA transfer rules in place, but that’s the case at all universities these days. You can bet Phillips will be on the lookout for potential transfers as well. As long as the players, whoever they may be come fall, stay the course, the future still has a chance to be bright.

The Penguins’ defense showed the potential of being one of the league’s strongest units, and while the offense has a way to go in some areas, YSU found an identity — and a budding star — in the running game, particularly tailback Jaleel McLaughlin.

Maybe of more importance to Phillips and the players was the chemistry and confidence created during the spring. As Phillips said, there’s no replacement for experience and playing alongside guys in a brutal sport that tests a person’s physical and mental limits. It builds a kinship that can’t be quantified in statistics or wins and losses.

The bond also creates a belief, and it’s obvious the Penguins are believing.

“We don’t just have the players to compete, we have the players to dominate out here,” YSU tight end Andrew Ogletree said last week in response to a question about whether the Penguins had the personnel to be a contender. “I see this as a national championship team, a playoff team, just by the way that we have showcased ourselves and the way we were in these tight games. We just have to capitalize on our opportunities, and we’re right there.”

They have some roadblocks on their way “there,” but that’s nothing new for Phillips and the Penguins.

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