Liz Hornberger
Liz Hornberger

Throughout his 17 years coaching, John Barnes, the new Youngstown State University women’s basketball head coach, is taking the positives and putting together a puzzle.

“You take all of the things that you feel you’ve helped your teams throughout the years and use them to what best fits your team now,” he said.

YSU is putting the pieces together — as it usually does before every season. But this time, the Penguins are doing so with two major sections missing.

First, Barnes replaces former YSU and current Ohio University head coach Bob Boldon who led the Penguins to a 23-10 (11-5) record last year and a trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Boldon also took his coaching staff to OU with him, so Barnes had to start fresh and bring in his own. The new YSU staff includes Andy Crane, John Nicolais, Brenna Banktson and Courtney Davidson.

Karen Flagg

“The first day we met them was kind of awkward, but then it was like we had known them for years,” senior Melissa Thompson said. “It’s been really easy on and off the court, and we already feel like a family on the court.”

The other piece is Brandi Brown, who is currently playing in Sweden, averaged 20.1 points per game and 11.1 rebounds per game last year.

Coincidentally, Brown wore No. 42 during her four-year career at YSU. Freshman Jonna Raflund currently sports the number, and she hails from Sweden.

“We’re not trying to replace Brandi,” Barnes said. “We’re trying to have all of our players step up, do a little bit more of the scoring, do a little bit more of the rebounding and help out more defensively.”

The biggest obstacle of the four that Barnes mentioned is defense, which he has been stressing to his new team. Senior Liz Hornberger said the first three weeks
of practice were all about defense.

Melissa Thompson

“We didn’t work on offense at all,” she said. “The first day we did offense, no one scored, and we were all worried that our offense was terrible. I just think that our defense is that much better already.”

The Penguins allowed 57.8 points per game last year, even though opponents shot 40.4 percent against them. YSU was also out-rebounded by 69 last season.

“I think our defense looks way better than it did last year, and we weren’t terrible on defense last year,” Hornberger said. “Everything Coach Barnes has done so far has only made us better.”

Another item Barnes’ has been stressing is the low-post shots. The Penguins attempted 858 3-pointers last year and made 30.7 percent of them while their opponents attempted 502. Hornberger ranks fourth among returning Horizon League 3-point shooters with 65 made.

Senior Monica Touvelle ranks sixth in that category with 62 made last year. She also ranks seventh with a 34.8 3-point percentage.

Shar’Rae Davis

“The closer that your shots are, usually the percentages go up,” Barnes said. “We’re not throwing away the 3-pointers by any means. We still want to do those things, but we just want to start throwing it inside to our bigs and going from there.”

One preseason positive for the Penguins is that they have 17 home games scheduled, which is the most in school history. Eight out of their first nine games are at Beeghly Center.

“It’s awesome. I hate traveling,” Hornberger said laughing. “I like our gym, and I love our fans.”

The Horizon League schedule begins on Jan. 9 at Valparaiso University. Before conference play begins, Barnes said the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is still the team to beat even though they lost a few key players. The Phoenix went 29-3 (16-0) last year and won the conference championship.

“I think Wright State’s going to have a very strong team,” Barnes said. “There’s a lot of teams in that next spot. I think it’s up for grabs.”

Karen Flagg and three other seniors — Hornberger, Touvelle, Thompson — help make up the incomplete puzzle that is Youngstown State. A starting lineup is not in place. The Penguins are still in the evaluation period.

The season begins on Nov. 2 against Virginia Commonwealth University at home. The Penguins look to put all the pieces together that will ultimately result in a Horizon League Championship.

“I just constantly think back to my freshman year when we only won six games,” Hornberger said. “It’s not something I like to be reminded of, but you look at all of the mistakes we made in the past.

“It’s hard to compare because everything’s different, but it’s a good different. I think that’s why our senior class is so strong because we’ve been through that. Everything’s becoming more detailed because the little things are the things that win championships.”