By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State’s 14-man basketball roster has players from 10 different states, including four from Michigan and two from Florida.
Only one, Canfield High graduate Mike Podolsky, grew up within 90 minutes of Youngstown.
Which begs the question: Do the other Penguins understand how important it is to beat Kent State?
“That’s a really good question,” said Penguins coach Jerry Slocum, who hasn’t beaten the Golden Flashes since 2006, his second season. “I’ve tried to educate them a little bit about that. But you’re probably right, they don’t.
“A lot of those guys, like D.J. [Cole] that are upperclassmen get it, but it’s a good point. You start a couple Florida guys, a Kansas guy, an Atlanta, Georgia, guy and I’m telling them this is kind of a game that our community really watches and they look at me like, ‘What?’”
Kent leads the all-time series 28-17 and has won the last five meetings, so while all the Penguins may not grasp the rivalry’s importance, they do grasp the challenge.
“We’re excited to start playing good competition and good teams again,” said point guard D.J. Cole, who is from Kansas. “I feel at the same time a lot of the older guys know what’s at stake and how big the rivalry is because in past years we had a lot of local players on the team like [Warren Harding grad] Damian Eargle and [Mooney’s] Danny Reese and they would always stress to us how big the Kent and Youngstown rivalry was.”
When asked how long after Saturday’s win over Westminster his team started thinking about Kent, Slocum said, “We played Wesminster on Saturday, right? And we played Thiel [last] Wednesday.”
After a pause, Slocum grinned and said, “Last Monday.”
Like YSU, Kent is off to a 6-1 start this season and, like YSU, the Golden Flashes swept a three-games-in-three-days tournament. Last weekend, the Flashes beat Western Carolina (72-59), USC-Upstate (79-78) and Niagara (102-97) in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Kent.
“I think this is the best Kent team that I’ve seen in five or six or seven years,” Slocum said. “They are very balanced. I think they share the ball better than I’ve seen in a Kent team in terms of how well they kind of like each other. It’s very evident in the way they play.”
Kris Brewer leads four Flashes in double figures with 12.4 points per game. Kent likes to attack the basket off drives and shoot a lot of 3s (the Flashes have made 58 of 148 this season), so YSU’s perimeter defense will be challenged.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Slocum said. “They drive at you and get you in negative defensive position constantly.”
Because Ohio is more Mid-American Conference country than Horizon League country, and because Akron and Kent are perennial MAC powers, it’s a big deal when the Penguins can beat one of those teams.
YSU hasn’t beaten the Zips since 1994 and have just one win over the Flashes since 2002. Those games, along with Horizon-member Cleveland State, draw the most interest from fans.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” Slocum said. “We all respect what they’ve done and who they are, so anytime we play them, it’s a special opportunity.”