YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A recent trip to a remote camp for two days of basketball, bonfires, camaraderie and no cellular service helped bring together the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team, which has five transfers and four freshmen.
Coach Jerrod Calhoun insists there’s no magic formula for meshing newcomers and returning players. The Penguins, coming off a 15-12, 9-11, Horizon League season, will start play Nov. 10 at Penn State. The team will make $60,000 from the contest.
“We did a lot of things in the offseason to bring this group together,” says Calhoun, emphasizing team standards, behavior and interaction among nearly 20 players.
Senior Michael Akuchie says this forces him to be a leader and communicate various concepts and formations on the floor – which he is welcoming with “open arms.”
Sophomore Shemar Rathan-Mayes says the newcomers came in from winning programs and have adapted to the teachings of Calhoun and his staff.
“When you take that and our common goal – our goal is the Horizon League Championship – it becomes easier,” Rathan-Mayes says.
The women’s team also has nine newcomers this year. The players took trips to Cedar Point and Grove City Premium Outlets, among other team-building exercises, to make the newcomers feel welcome.
“It’s kind of building your own culture and your own identity based on what we have and what’s coming in,” fifth-year senior guard Chelsea Olson says. “That’s the biggest part.”
Megan Callahan, a graduate transfer from Robert Morris, shot 36.7% from 3-point range in the 2020-21 season.
Her new team, which was 10-8, 9-7 in the Horizon last year, opens the season Nov. 9 at Eastern Michigan, and goes to Penn State on Dec. 12 – a contest paying YSU between $15,000 and $20,000.
“Although I’m new and have a lot of things to learn and I’m going to be learning every day, I’ll bring my experience and be able to be a leader for the girls that are younger and need more experience on the team,” Callahan says.
Fans in the stands
Horizon League teams played league games in front of no fans last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Players had to wear masks while lifting weights and practicing, but not during games.
“Hopefully we’re getting further and further away from masks and getting COVID in the background,” Barnes says. “It’d be nice when we actually get back to the old normal.”
YSU averaged the second-most fans in the Horizon League the past couple of seasons.
Barnes says the fans have been great. “They’re loud,” he says. “They get into it and that really helps our team. It honestly helps us win games.”
On the rosters
YSU men’s basketball graduate transfer Greyson Kelley and fifth-year seniors Akuchie, Garrett Covington and Jamir Thomas are returning, the result of pandemic and the NCAA giving all athletes another year of eligibility for the 2021-22 season.
“At the end of the day, you want guys that want to wear the red and white,” Calhoun says.
The Penguins have 17 scholarship players on the roster, along with University of Mount Union transfer and senior Collen Gurley – a nonscholarship player.
This season, NCAA Division I teams are allowed to have the same number of scholarship players over the maximum 13 as their number of returning seniors.
Jacori Owens, Luke Chicone, Michael Lucarotti and Josh Irwin are the incoming freshmen.
Senior Tevin Olison and juniors Dwayne Cohill, Owen Long and Chris Shelton came to YSU through the transfer portal. The NCAA allows all players – Divisions I through III – a one-time transfer to another school without sitting out a season.
Cohill, a former four-star high school recruit, has recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament tear at the University of Dayton.
Long averaged 19.3 points, shot 42.3% from 3-point range and 88.4% at the free-throw line at NCAA Division II Maryville University. Olison averaged 23 points last season at the NAIA University of Cumberlands. Shelton led the NCAA in 3-point percentage with 48.6 at Hampton University.
Long is coming back from a broken left wrist. Calhoun says he is working to get back into game-ready shape.
“You have to utilize the portal. But it has to be the right fit,” Calhoun says. “I think all four guys really fit the Penguins.”
YSU graduates Naz Bohannon and Darius Quisenberry transferred to bigger programs in Clemson and Fordham, respectively. Bohannon led the team with 16.5 points and added 8.2 rebounds per game, while Quisenberry had 14.9 points per contest for a team coming off its season straight season above .500.
“They gave everything they had to this program,” Calhoun says. “Certainly wish those guys well. But it’s the landscape of college basketball.”
The YSU women’s team lost its two top scorers in graduate Mary Dunn, who went to the University of Pittsburgh, and last season’s Horizon League Freshman of the Year Nneka Obiazor. Dunn and Obiazor, who is at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, each averaged over 15 points per game, while Obiazor led the Penguins with 8.1 rebounds per game.
Another YSU graduate, McKenah Peters who averaged nine points per game, transferred to Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Barnes says he has mixed feelings about losing those players, but is excited with the new players obtained this season.
“We wish those players who transferred nothing but the best of luck unless we play them,” he says. “We’re trying to win a championship here. However we have to do it, whether it’s transfers or high school or a mixture, which I think it’s going to be from now on, that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Kayiona Willis, Athena Hocevar, Haley Thierry and Tenleigh Phillips are the incoming freshmen, while seniors Lindsey Mack (Fairleigh Dickinson), Callahan, Lilly Ritz (Wheeling University), junior Paige Shy (Marshall) and sophomore Lindsey Linard (Duquesne) came to YSU through the transfer portal.
Mack made 41 3-point shots last season, while Ritz led NCAA Division II in rebounding the past two seasons. Shy had 15 3-pointers in 16 games during the 2020-21 season. Linard came off the bench for the Dukes.
“We see all of them playing significant minutes,” Barnes says. “It worked out for us because I think four of the five we recruited heavily out of high school. We had a previous relationship with them – all great kids, good students and good players.”
The YSU women’s team was picked seventh in the Horizon League preseason poll. Olson, who is an all-league, second-team selection, says to become one of the best in the league, YSU has to mesh its newcomers and returning players.
“The best thing is that we can kind of go in every day and not play with a lot of pressure on us,” she says.
Sophomore guard Malia Magestro, who shot more than 50% from 3-point range last season, and Olson are the two mainstays as starters. Barnes says it’s wide open from there because this is the most depth he’s had on one team since coming to YSU starting in the 2013-14 season.
Junior forward Jen Wendler, Linard and Ritz should see playing time, as well as a host of other guards.
“Whoever is playing well at different times might be in there. But we’ve got a lot of options, which is nice,” Barnes says.
Besides 3-point shooting, defense has been one of the staples of this YSU team. Last year’s team held its opponents to 63.5 points per game. When the Penguins went 22-10 in the 2018-19 season, YSU held teams to 57.6 points per game.
“That’s when we had our best years,” Barnes says. “We’re trying to get back to that kind of defense.”
He says fans would be shocked how hard his team plays and its toughness.
“I think if they come once they’re going to come again and will be hooked,” Barnes says.
As of Oct. 20, Calhoun says Shemar Rathan-Mayes, Cohill, Covington, Olison and Akuchie were the team’s starting lineup. Rathan-Mayes (10.4 points, 82.4% from the free-throw line and a team-high 85 assists), Covington (12.5 points) and Akuchie (9.9 points, 8.3 rebounds) are the team’s top returning offensive players.
“That’s a team that can make plays for one another, shoot 3s, and attack the rim,” Calhoun says.
YSU plays at Penn State (Nov. 10) and at West Virginia (Dec. 22), but has six home games – including the J. Arnold Wealth Management Company Tournament Nov. 19-21.
The Penguins’ first home Horizon game is Jan. 7, 2022. Last season, the Penguins were away from Beeghly Center for eight of the first 10 games.
“Our guys know we’ve got to overcome some of the scheduling issues that we have inside the Horizon League,” Calhoun says.
The men, like the women’s team, was picked seventh in the preseason league poll. No YSU men’s team has made the NCAA Tournament since becoming a Division I team in the early 1980s. The team that wins the Horizon League Tournament gets an automatic berth to the nationwide postseason competition.
“We’re a hard-nosed team,” Akuchie says. “People can say what they want on paper. But when it comes to inside these walls, we all believe in one another.”
Pictured: The Youngstown State University men’s basketball team did a lot of things in the offseason to to build cohesiveness,” says Coach Jerrod Calhoun.