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Transfer Lilly Ritz excelling for Penguins

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State senior Lilly Ritz lays it in for a score last Friday versus Long Island University. Ritz has been on a tear recently for the Penguins, scoring 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

YOUNGSTOWN — Playing Division I basketball wasn’t originally the end goal for Youngstown State’s Lilly Ritz. Now that she’s here, though, she’s taking advantage of the opportunity.

A senior transfer from Division II Wheeling University, Ritz is off to a strong start through her first five games as a Penguin. The forward is averaging 18.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game as YSU is off to a 5-0 start.

It may come as a surprise, but Ritz originally set out to play in Division II.

“With recruitment, I kind of started late. I didn’t know if I wanted to do basketball or track at the time,” Ritz explained. “So I was very late to the party and had to just settle for some smaller options, and I didn’t think I wanted to go D1 at the time.”

So Ritz, a Cambridge native who is studying business administration, began her career at the D2 level, but not at Wheeling. Instead, she started at California University of Pennsylvania before transferring to Wheeling midseason.

With the Cardinals, she excelled. Ritz led D2 in rebounding in back-to-back seasons prior to her transfer, and scored 1,054 points and 800 rebounds during her time with the Cardinals. She secured a double-double in each of her final 33 games, was a consensus All-American in her final season, and also was a member of the track and field team.

“It was great,” Ritz said of her time at Wheeling.

But in 2019, the school went into financial straits — the second time that happened after issues cropped up in 2017 — and academic programs and staff were significantly reduced.

“I (thought), ‘I need to get out of here before stuff gets worse,'” Ritz said.

So, the 6-foot-1 forward put her name in the transfer portal. Within 10 minutes, she said, YSU head coach John Barnes was in touch.

Ritz was perhaps a tad surprised, but also was expecting the call a little bit. She had visited YSU as a senior before opting to take the D2 route, so there was familiarity with the program.

The Penguins, meanwhile, were in search of a forward to replace Mary Dunn, who transferred to Pitt.

“I wasn’t expecting an offer or anything. I was just expecting a talk,” she said.

Instead, Barnes “laid it all on the table” and gave Ritz an offer, the forward said.

“He said (Dunn) was leaving, and that (YSU has) a great inside-outside game, which we do,” Ritz said. “That was really the biggest factor. He was saying there’s a spot for me if I wanted it, and the girls would really like me and that I’d like the girls and they’d love to have me. That was a big thing was having confidence in my coaches that they wanted to have me here.”

Filling the void left behind by Dunn was and is a tall order. The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in her final season with YSU and twice made the All-Horizon League Team.

Ritz, however, said she doesn’t feel any pressure as far as filling that void, and instead puts pressure on herself to “(do) what I know how to do and not go down to where I don’t want to be. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and not play the basketball I know how to play.”

The biggest adjustment, she said, has been to the aggressiveness and physicality of the D1 level.

“Girls are bigger, taller and faster (in Division I), and that’s definitely something I’ve had to get used to, and the competitiveness here is so much different,” Ritz said.

To make that change to her own approach, the senior said she had to find the right mindset.

“Once I got the mindset, it was just being physical with teammates in practice and with girls in competition and then living up to the standard I want to be at,” she said.

So far, she’s been exactly what the Penguins were seeking. Ritz ranks third in the Horizon League in both scoring average and rebounds per game. Her field goal percentage of .621 is first overall, and she’s also top six in both blocks and steals. She’s scored at least 20 points in each of YSU’s last three games.

Ritz said one of the biggest things that’s aided in her transition has been her teammates.

“I think one of the things I was looking for the most was having a group of girls I love being around, love going to practice with and love going to win for,” she said. “Our chemistry off the court really helps us on the court. We know each other so well. We know what each other will do during games, and that really helps us.”

And with such a tight-knit group, Ritz’s main goal for this year actually pertains to that unit instead of her own career.

“(I want to) win the Horizon League championship and then go to the NCAA Tournament,” Ritz said.

That quest continues Thursday night against Milwaukee. Tipoff for the conference matchup is set for 7 p.m.

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