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Last ride: YSU fifth-year seniors looking to end careers on high note

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes. YSU fifth-year senior Mady Aulbach handles the ball during the first meeting this season against Purdue Fort Wayne on Jan. 18.

YOUNGSTOWN — This week marks the final week of regular-season college basketball for six Youngstown State fifth-year seniors.

With that comes a sense of finality, a realization that the end of their competitive basketball careers inches ever closer. For most of them, Saturday’s regular-season finale at Purdue Fort Wayne and the Horizon League conference tournament next week could be the last games they ever play in a sport they have been a part of since they were young girls.

“I’ve known the majority of these girls most of my life, so it’s coming down to the wire,” Dena Jarrells said. “For us to be playing the way we’re playing, I think we’re going to raise some eyebrows and continue to raise them.”

The group of Jarrells, Mady Aulbach, Paige Shy, Shay-Lee Kirby, Emily Saunders and Jen Wendler (who has been out this season with an ACL injury), have meant a lot to the YSU program and have been a part of a lot of games and a lot of wins during their collegiate careers.

For example, Aulbach has now played in the second-most games in program history. With 137 games played, she recently surpassed former Penguin Sarah Cash, who played from 2014 to 2019, and is five games behind Chelsea Olson, who played for YSU from 2017 to 2022.

“They’re a great group of young ladies,” Nicolais said. “They’re hard workers, they’re great in the classroom and they’re great ambassadors for our program and university.”

That upperclassmen group wasn’t happy with how the season began and wanted to change their fortunes to end the season strong in their final years.

“I think (we just wanted) to prove people wrong,” Jarrells said. “I think that we obviously got off to a wrong start this season. I think towards the end of the season right now, we just want to raise those eyebrows.”

The Penguins started the season 4-9 and lost six of their first eight games. It was newfound territory for a program that had maintained winning seasons over the last three years, including a Horizon League regular season championship in 2021-2022.

But YSU stayed the course. The Penguins have now won six of their last nine games, with two of those losses coming against Green Bay and Cleveland State, the top two teams in the conference.

“I think adversity has taught us a lot,” Kirby said. “We’ve stayed together, we’ve stayed strong. We can’t look back and think the beginning of the season was a bad thing, but that was what made us a lot stronger and that’s why we are where we are today.”

Shy kind of forecasted YSU’s impending turnaround after a loss to Canisius back at the end of December.

“We want to self-reflect and leave the past in the past,” Shy said on Dec. 21. “We talked about the end of our season, if we keep losing here and there, looking back, these losses will mean nothing, but if we turn things around, these losses will have helped us grow into the team we want to be.”

Turning their fortunes around required the Penguins to lift their level of play, and it’s shown over the past month.

During the middle of the season, Kirby struggled to find her scoring touch, but in the last eight games, she’s averaged 13.1 points per game, which included her tying a career high of 24 points on Feb. 8 at Oakland.

Aulbach has done the same. Primarily a defensive specialist, she’s averaged 5.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in the last four games. Then Jarrells, who’s been one of YSU’s most consistent scorers this season, equaled a career high with 25 points to help rally the Penguins from 18 points down last week at Northern Kentucky. Finally, Saunders pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds in the game against the Norse.

“We really feel like now, and really since Jan. 19 (when former coach John Barnes resigned), that we’ve taken ownership of it and we wanted to have our stamp on things,” Nicolais said. “They’re playing really confident and they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder and they’re playing with a sense of finality. Those are all things that you hope to have in late February, and I don’t know what we had that the last couple of years with two really good teams — we kind of died off at the end of February. So I like the direction this is heading.”

After being on the cusp of an upset and giving Cleveland State one of its toughest tests of the season on Tuesday, YSU’s confidence is sky high heading into the final games of the year.

At this point, this version of the Penguins feels like it can play with anyone.

“I’m going to keep it simple. Honestly, if I was any team from here on out, I’d be scared to play us because we’re ready to go,” Kirby said. “It doesn’t matter the name on the jersey. We go in every night and just play as hard as we possibly can, and we’re going to continue to do that from here on out.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Neel Madhavan by email at nmadhavan@tribtoday.com. Follow him/her on X, formerly Twitter, @NeelMadhavan.

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