YSU women's basketball team celebrates return to health

By Greg Gulas



Injuries were costly for the Youngstown State women’s basketball team last season as the Penguins fell to 9-21.

But young players pressed into action a year ago have helped create a much deeper unit this season for head coach John Barnes, who enters his fifth campaign.

Speaking to the Curbstone Coaches during Monday’s weekly meeting at Avion Banquet Center, Barnes said the Penguins will need all of that depth for what he described as a very tough overall and Horizon League schedule.

“We’re just excited to have everyone healthy as we move forward,” Barnes said. “With what we have coming back and a great group of newcomers, we’re ready to get going.”

Practice officially begins Oct. 2 with Barnes and his staff utilizing its 40 allotted days to get in 30 practice sessions.

A home exhibition with Davis and Elkins College will take place on Nov. 4 with the Penguins eyeing their season opener at the University of Pittsburgh on Nov. 10.

Two of those injured players, Sarah Cash and Nikki Arbanas (both juniors), were red-shirted and are anxiously eyeing their return to the court.

Arbanas missed the entire season and currently feels on schedule after knee surgery. Cash played in seven games, averaged 11.6 points and 3.9 caroms before being forced to the sidelines and undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery on her right knee.

“Anyone coming back from an injury is leery, but I’ve had a lot of great people around me and working with me and that really helped,” Cash said. “I’m just trying to get back into basketball shape and probably feel about 90 percent right now. I have yet to play a full game or scrimmage, but once practice starts I’ll have a better idea of my progress.”

Cash, one of the program’s great walk-on successes who has since earned a scholarship, worked hard all summer with first-year strength and conditioning coach Jake Tuura.

“Over the summer we worked more on strength than in the past and it really helped me,” she noted. “I really missed the competition last year so I’m ready to get practice started and the season underway.”

Defense is a big focus this year for Barnes.

“We struggled defensively last year with both Nikki and Sarah, two of our best defenders out for the year,” he said. “We’ll build off the experience from those who were forced into action. Allison Smolinski made great strides, going from a role player to a starter and someone that we counted on to score. Mary Dunn also did a great job as well, going from backing up Sarah to earning league ‘Freshman of the Year’ honors.”

Dunn, the tallest Penguin at 6-foot-3, averaged 11.3 points and 3.9 rebounds during her initial collegiate campaign.

“Our approach in the offseason was to get healthy and while we have a few things here and there, we don’t have or want anything major,” Barnes said. “We also stressed mental toughness because you make better in-game decisions and also when the game is on the line. Eating better and becoming more disciplined both on and off the court has also been stressed.”

The three seniors include three-year starter Indiya Benjamin, Kelley Wright and Morgan Olson with Benjamin joining Arbanas and Cash as this year’s tri-captains.

Newcomers include guards Alexus Burkhart, Chelsea Olson, McKenah Peters and Josie Fisher (Fisher is a junior who played at Indiana-Fort Wayne as a freshman), and forwards Amara Chikwe and Anne Secrest.

Junior Melinda Trimmer from West Branch High School, and sophomores Morgan Brunner and Natalie Myers round out this year’s squad.

“The schedule, especially in the league is a challenging one but if we can stay healthy, we’ll give any team a run,” Barnes noted.

Next week, YSU head volleyball coach Mark Hardaway will serve as guest speaker.

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