By Joe Scalzo
For the first three weeks of practice under new coach John Barnes, the Youngstown State women’s basketball team worked on nothing but defense.
“We didn’t work on offense at all and the first day we did, nobody scored,” senior guard Liz Hornberger said. “And we were all worried, ‘Oh, our offense is terrible,’ but I just think our defense is that much better already.”
The defensive emphasis isn’t surprising. Barnes, who was hired in March after Bob Boldon left for Ohio University, was an all-defensive team selection by the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference at Michigan Tech in the mid-1990s. He spent last season as an assistant at Horizon League-power Green Bay, where he oversaw a defense that allowed just 49 points per game, second-fewest in the country.
Boldon’s defense relied heavily on switches (i.e. switching your assigned player after screens), whereas Barnes prefers his players stay with their assigned player. The Penguin defense held opponents to 57.8 points per game last year — YSU’s best numbers since the 1978-79 season — but Barnes believes they can be even better.
“I hate to say it, but I think switching is easier,” senior Monica Touvelle, who echoed Barnes in that opinion. “[In Barnes’ system] you really have to fight through and get through [screens] and it’s a lot more physical, so that’s been a challenge. And just being mentally tough, it’s taken to another level this year with Coach Barnes this year compared to last year.”
Barnes has also changed the offense. Boldon ran a five-out motion scheme that relied heavily on 3-point shots (and Brandi Brown’s brilliance), whereas Barnes prefers an inside-out game that feeds the ball to post players, who have the option to kick it back out to shooters when they’re double-teamed.
“The closer the shots are, usually the percentages go up,” Barnes said. “We’re not throwing away the 3-pointer by any means. A lot of my teams in the past have led the conference in makes and 3-point field goal percentage. We just want to start by throwing the ball in to our bigs and go from there.”
For the first time in recent memory, the Penguins have the size to do that. More than half the players on the roster are 5-foot-9 or taller, including junior forward Heidi Schlegel (6-0), who was second in scoring (9.8) and third in rebounds (4.5) for YSU last season.
YSU also returns four seniors, as well as point guard Shar’Rae Davis, who was named to the Horizon League’s all-newcomer team.
The Penguins finished 23-10 last year and placed second in the league standings and Barnes wants to stay there, even after losing Brown, the league’s player of the year.
When asked to name the biggest differences between Boldon and Barnes, Hornberger mentioned accountability and attention to detail.
“Less shortcuts,” she said. “Everything’s becoming more detailed at practice. The little details are the things that win championships. Obviously we only got second place last year and we want first place, so details are the things we have to pay attention this year.”
The Penguins may have some growing pains early, but with 17 home games, including eight of the first nine, they’ll be able to work out those kinks in a familiar place.
“It’s frustrating sometimes for me and it’s frustrating at times for them, but they now if they keep working at it they’ll get it,” Barnes said. “We’re trying to do all these things to take a step forward and win a conference championship.”