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Leading the way: Youngstown State’s Covington, Akuchie set for 5th, final seasons

YSU senior Garrett Covington shoots a three-pointer during the first half of Youngstown State’s season opener against Point Park last season.

YOUNGSTOWN — The clock is ticking, and Garrett Covington and Michael Akuchie know it.

Youngstown State’s fifth-year seniors are entering their final season with the Penguins, having been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the sense of urgency has never been higher, Covington says.

“Every day I come in here, it gets a little bit more sad because I’m one step closer to being finished,” the 6-foot-5 guard said. “But I just value each day more than I ever have, and just the amount of effort and amount of time I put in with the guys, because I know this is it.”

YSU head coach Jerrod Calhoun says it seems like a long time ago that the two were brought to campus as freshmen, but the five years since have gone quickly.

The YSU duo was part of Calhoun’s first-ever recruiting class in Youngstown, a mad-dash effort after the coaching staff took over late in the recruiting cycle. YSU hired Calhoun away from Fairmont State following the Division II national championship in late March 2017.

“We were really scrambling around trying to put a roster together that first year, and both kids were available,” Calhoun explained, adding that the program liked Akuchie’s versatility and Convington’s tough-nose brand of play.

Covington said “eons ago” he was recruited by Coach Paul (Molinari) and Coach (Jason) Slay and came to Youngstown for a visit.

“I just loved the atmosphere and loved what Youngstown was about, the grittiness of it, and I know this was the place where I belonged,” he said.

Akuchie, meanwhile, said a high school teammate’s father filmed his games at St. Thomas Aquinas and posted Akuchie’s highlight tape to Facebook. After his AAU coach reposted it, he received a call from Slay. Not long after, he came to Youngstown for a visit, liked what he saw and committed not long after that.

The two came in and made an immediate impact. Covington played in all 32 of YSU’s games his freshman season, while Akuchie appeared in 29. Now, 124 games together later, the duo has scored a combined 1,958 points and could become the first players in school history to play in 150 career games.

Covington, who Calhoun said has improved on his offense since his arrival, has scored 1,172 career points with YSU and has 477 rebounds. Akuchie, who Calhoun described as shy when he first arrived but has come out of his shell, is up to 786 career points and 576 rebounds.

“We got really lucky, and as you’re seeing five years later, these kids have climbed up the ladder in every statistical category and are part of hopefully trying to make history this year to continue to add progress to what they’ve helped us build here,” Calhoun said.

This year, that progress and building includes the two becoming more vocal leaders for the team, as they’re the lone fifth-year seniors on a roster with plenty of newcomers.

“I think you’re only as good as your older players. You have to have older guys that help drive the culture home every day,” Calhoun said.

Covington and Akuchie have taken that head on. Getting those players assimilated has been “a process,” according to Covington, but progress is being made.

For Covington, it’s a matter of putting a sense of urgency into everything the Penguins do and making sure the intensity is there.

“I think it’s a challenge I’ve been willing to accept, and I’ve kind of looked forward to accepting — just being that guy and that burst of energy for our team,” the guard said.

Akuchie says it’s a matter of consistency for himself and the team.

“I’m making sure I hold myself accountable first and foremost, so then I can hold other people accountable,” the forward said. “I’m making sure I’m a glue guy, keeping everybody level, making sure everybody is grasping concepts and making sure everybody is paying attention. It’s a lot of things like that.”

Akuchie added that the team is tight knit on and off the court, and things are coming along.

And now, with the final curtain soon descending on their careers at Youngstown State, the two have a shared goal for themselves and the team — winning the Horizon League.

The Penguins begin their campaign Nov. 10 at Penn State.

jwhetzel@tribtoday.com

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