By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State women’s basketball coach John Barnes will coach against his former team today, but it’s not exactly like Vince Lombardi facing Green Bay.
“I was only at Green Bay for one year, so it won’t feel weird at all,” said Barnes, who served as Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth’s assistant last year in Green Bay and at Michigan in 2011-12. “I feel right at home here [in Youngstown].”
The storyline is so minor that when YSU junior Heidi Schlegel was asked if she remembers Barnes being an assistant with the Phoenix, she started laughing and said, “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think we need to think about that,” Schlegel said. “We just need to play our game and focus on what we can control.”
After a shaky 4-9 start under Barnes, the Penguins (6-9) have emerged as a team to watch in the Horizon League, beating Valparaiso (62-49) and UIC (69-58) on the road last week to start conference play.
It is YSU’s first 2-0 start in the Horizon League in six years.
“This last weekend we started playing more together as a team,” said Schlegel, who ranks third in the HL in scoring (20.2 per game). “Definitely on defense we started trusting each other more and playing together and working for each other.”
Historically, the Penguins have done about as well against the Phoenix as they would against Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Green Bay leads the series 29-1, with YSU’s lone win coming in 2005.
Green Bay has won or shared the last 15 Horizon League titles, but this year’s team isn’t as dominant. The Phoenix (8-6, 1-1 HL) were hit hard by graduation and have already lost more games this season than in any season since 2007.
“They’re young; they lost a lot of good girls last year,” Schlegel said. “But every year they’re good. And even though they’re young, they’re still good.”
After going 23-8 last season, Youngstown State struggled early in the season as it adjusted to Barnes’ offensive and defensive schemes. But guard Liz Hornberger (who has scored in double figures in four of the last five games) has given the Penguins a strong second scoring option to Schlegel.
“All four years she’s been here, she’s passed up shots,” Schlegel said of Hornberger. “We’d say, ‘Liz, just shoot the ball.’ So that’s different. Now, when she’s open, she shoots it.”
YSU’s defense has also improved in league play, holding Valparaiso and UIC to 53.5 points per game, compared to 71.7 per game in the non-conference schedule.
“Defensively, we’ve stepped up the last few games,” Barnes said. “Really, that’s where we want to establish ourselves, on that end first and the offense will come after that.”
Green Bay takes the same approach. The Phoenix are again leading the Horizon League in scoring defense at 56.5 points per game, which is 10 better than second-place UIC (65.6).
If YSU hopes to compete annually with Green Bay — which is Barnes’ goal — it’ll start on that end.
“We’re trying to establish a yearly winning program and they’ve been there for 15-20 years,” he said. “We’re trying to learn how to win and play hard and compete at a high level day in and day out. They’re there and they know how to do that, but we’ve really come a long way this season so far.”