By JOE SCALZO
When freshman cornerback Donald D’Alesio started his first official practice at YSU last week, he could look across the field and spot a fellow freshman named Zach Larson.
Larson has been playing football with D’Alesio since the fourth grade.
Or he could look in another direction and spot freshman linebacker Mark Brandenstein, who played a few feet away from him on last year’s Division III state championship team at Cardinal Mooney.
Or look in an another direction and spot guys like sophomore linebacker Mike McGlone or sophomore safety Vinnie Patella, who were his teammates two years ago with the Cardinals.
Elsewhere, he could see freshmen such as running back Allen Jones (an Ursuline High grad who was Wolford’s first recruit) and defensive linemen Dan Fernback and Kevin Johnson (both of Boardman). He played against all three last fall.
“[Last week] in meetings, we had to come out and tell everyone where we’re from,” D’Alesio said. “All us Youngstown guys, we kind of stick together a little.
“It’s kind of everyone’s dream to play on an All-Star team.”
Of the 90 players on YSU’s roster, 26 hail from the tri-county area.
And that doesn’t count Mooney High graduates Taylor Hill and Eric Franklin, talented players who will spend this fall focusing on academics. Or five others who will either start the year injured or waiting for roster spots to open up.
“We want to show everyone where we’re from and what we’re about,” said Brandenstein, a first team All-Ohioan last fall for a 15-0 Mooney team. “[YSU’s] been down a little bit and we’re going to bring them back.
“The homeboys, we know what we’ve got to do to get this Youngstown team back in the rankings. It’s great playing with the guys you played high school with, your brothers on the team.”
Since he was hired in December, YSU coach Eric Wolford has emphasized the need to recruit locally and he already has three local commitments from the Class of 2011: Fitch DL Steve Zaborsky, West Branch OL Brandon Ferguson and Girard WR Landon Smith.
He’s also made scholarship offers to five others: Hubbard LB Blake Novotny, East WR Mike Thomas, Warren Harding RB Demond Hymes, Ursuline RB Akise Teague and Poland WR Darius Patton, whose father, Shawn, was a standout running back on the Penguins’ 1994 national championship team.
Although the local recruiting approach is nothing new — former YSU coach Jim Tressel often referred to this area as the “State of Youngstown” — Wolford, an Ursuline High graduate, has pursued players earlier and more aggressively than in years past.
The approach paid dividends with Smith, who had offers from schools in the Big Ten, Big East and Mid-American Conference.
The Penguins won’t get every local player, and not every local player will make an impact. But as Wolford tries to help Youngstown State return to prominence, he knows it’s not a bad idea to start with players who remember that success.
“I love Coach Wolford; he’s making a bunch of changes in a positive direction,” D’Alesio said. “He’s working us hard, turning things around here.
“His goal is to win a national championship, just like everyone else’s.”