By Joe Scalzo
Akron men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot had just finished praising the three coaches next to him and as Youngstown State coach Jerry Slocum took his turn to speak, he looked over at his colleagues and broke into a grin.
“I have nothing good to say,” he joked. “I don’t like any of them. I hope they lose every game.”
Over his eight years at YSU, Slocum has tried to raise his program to the level of northeast Ohio’s best teams. On Wednesday morning, he was on equal footing, for at least one day, as he joined Dambrot, Kent State’s Rob Senderoff and Cleveland State’s Gary Waters for the Coaches vs. Cancer tip-off breakfast at Sheraton Suites.
“What these teams have done is raised the bar for Youngstown State,” Slocum said. “Where we are today is a major jump from where we were. We’re excited about it but we have a long way to go to be where these guys are up here today.”
Slocum, whose team begins its season at George Washington on Nov. 10, led YSU to its best season since joining the Horizon League last year, going 16-15 overall and 10-8 in the conference.
The Penguins were picked to finish fourth in this year’s preseason poll.
“In my eyes, we’re right there with them,” senior Damian Eargle said of Kent, Akron and CSU. “It’s a rebuilding year for everybody but not for us because we have a lot of veterans that know what they’re doing.”
YSU plays host to Kent State on Nov. 28 but for the first time since the 2009-10 season, it does not face Akron. The Penguins host CSU on Jan. 26 and play the Vikings in Cleveland on Feb. 5.
“We can compete with each and every one of those teams, even in the [Mid-American Conference]. That’s how we feel,” said Eargle, a Warren Harding High graduate who earned preseason second team all-conference honors after making the Horizon’s all-defensive team last year. “We feel we’re one of the best teams in the Horizon League, if not the best.
“That’s the thought process that we’re going into the season with — that we can beat anybody if we just do what we’re taught to do and follow our system.”
The Penguins return three starters in junior guard Kendrick Perry (a first team all-conference selection last year after leading the league in scoring), senior guard Blake Allen and Eargle.
While YSU must rely on newcomers at the forward spots, Slocum believes his team finally has the talent and depth to sustain success in the conference.
“Obviously it’s about recruiting,” he said. “It’s made a difference between where we were four years ago to where we are now.”
Wednesday’s event was a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball coaches. It began in 1993 and has raised more than $85 million for the ACS.
Slocum lost his 58-year-old cousin to cancer three weeks ago; his mother is a 35-year cancer survivor.
“Cancer knows no gender, no economic value,” he said. “Rich or poor, no matter where you are, it’s a part of life.”
For more details, visit cancer.org.