By Kyle Wills
Seven months since their last games, the Youngstown State University men’s and women’s basketball teams look to build on the 2021-22 season which featured a 19-win season from the men and a regular-season Horizon League title for the women.
The women’s first conference championship season since 1998-99 saw two current Penguins and a coach take home Horizon League honors. Head coach John Barnes took home the Horizon League Coach of the Year award, fifth-year senior Lilly Ritz was named All-Horizon League First Team and senior Mady Aulbach, along with Ritz, earned All-Defensive Team honors.
In the 2022-23 Horizon League Women’s Basketball Preseason Poll, Youngstown State received eight first-place votes and 118 points to become the favorite to win the conference championship. Ritz also garnered Preseason All-Horizon League First Team honors after finishing last season averaging 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds.
Barnes said the entire team is adjusting to preseason expectations and how motivated opponents will be to play them.
“It’s definitely new territory for us. The players are adjusting, the coaches are adjusting,” Barnes said. “We’re understanding that we’re going to get every team’s best shot whether they’re 10-1 or 1-10.”
Ritz said with many expectations, the team has to work hard to maintain a high level of play.
“It’s definitely a lot different than last year. Last year, we were tied for seventh, this year we’re first, so it’s a lot of pressure, but we really have to own up to it. It doesn’t come easily,” Ritz said.
The team will enter this season without its assist leader and one of its top-two scorers from a season ago in Chelsea Olson. However, the women will welcome back 10 members of the squad, including five who made at least 20 starts: Ritz, Aulbach, sixth-year senior Megan Callahan, senior Paige Shy and junior Malia Magestro.
Shy led the team with 53 3-point shots made, Magestro was second with 48 and Callahan had the third best, 44. Aulbach took care of defending the opponent’s top guard, finishing third on the team in steals with 30.
Alongside the returning players, the Penguins add three players from West Virginia in seniors Dena Jarrells, Shay-Lee Kirby and Emily Saunders, and a freshman from Ohio, Mackenzie Hurd.
Unlike the women, the men didn’t finish at the top of the Horizon League Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll. However, they received 291 points to claim fifth. They also had a player named Preseason All-Horizon League First Team in senior Dwayne Cohill, after he led the Penguins last season with 14.9 points per game and 88 assists.
The team will be without two of its three players who played over 1000 minutes last season in Michael Akuchie and Tevin Olison. Akuchie was last year’s team rebound leader, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game, and its second-leading scorer, averaging 13.7. Olison was the team’s third-leading scorer with 12.6 points per game and was a force on defense, leading the team with 40 steals.
However, the team will welcome back graduate student Garrett Covington, who played only three games because of a torn achilles, along with seven other players.
Covington joked that he was like a relic to the basketball team and is looking to end his collegiate career strong.
“Last year, for myself personally, didn’t end how I wanted it to, but to have another opportunity and to be welcomed back to this program makes me more excited and makes me want to give everything I have for this last year,” Covington said.
Covington is a three-time Horizon League All-Defensive Team selection and averaged 12.5 points per game in his last full season in 2020-21. The men will also welcome back their point guard in junior Shemar Rathan-Mayes who was one of four players to start at least 30 games, along with Akuchie, Olison and Cohill.
The men look to fill the void with five new players joining the squad. The Penguins added four players through the transfer portal in graduate students Adrian Nelson and Malik Green, and seniors Brandon Rush and Bryce McBride. They also welcome a freshman in John Lovelace Jr.
Cohill said the team is driven to earn a national tournament bid with the talent it has.
“I think it’s just knowing you have the ability to do something that’s never been done. For me, for Garrett, for all the new guys that came in, for the guys that are returning too,” Cohill said.
“We still haven’t gotten over the hump to get to the NCAA tournament.”
The team will bring a lot of height to the court as eight of the 13 members are listed at least six feet and five inches.
Head coach Jerrod Calhoun said the team is prepared to get the season underway after its offseason preparation.
“I think the guys are ready to go. When you have the time in the summer to work with your team, we had seven weeks, we used seven out of the eight weeks that were allotted, you get your two scrimmages, so I think our guys are in a place. They’re definitely excited,” Calhoun said.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams both tip-off their seasons Nov. 7 when the women start their season at the Beeghly Center and the men travel to Canisius College. The men’s radio broadcast is on 570 WKBN and can be watched on ESPN 3 at 7:30 p.m. The women’s radio broadcast can be listened to on 1390 WNIO and can also watched on ESPN 3 at 7 p.m.