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Calhoun likes where Penguins are headed

BEAVER TOWNSHIP — The expectations have been sky-high since Jerrod Calhoun was named YSU head basketball coach on March 27, 2017.

No one’s expectations for winning and turning around a once-proud basketball program are higher than Calhoun’s.

The 13th head coach in program history begins his third season at the helm, sporting a cautious optimism that stems from the way his team played exactly 60 days ago when they defeated all three opponents they played at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Calhoun spoke to the Curbstone Coaches during Monday’s weekly meeting at Avion Banquet Center, telling the group that his team has made major strides thus far in the pre-season.

“We had an excellent August trip and that really set the tone for us,” Calhoun said. “The emphasis this season is to concentrate on the little things, things like setting good screens, making an extra pass or playing better defense. Those are the little things that spell the difference between winning and losing, and our guys are buying into it.

“Chemistry is developing and the three extra games on our summer trip helped out quite a bit.”

Calhoun’s Penguins’ debut was an inauspicious one as he was coming off a Division II national championship appearance at Fairmont State, had won 124 of 162 games as the Falcons’ head coach only to have his first YSU team split their first four games and struggle to an 8-24 mark.

His second squad last season won six consecutive games for the first time in 20 years, set a school record with six straight Horizon League wins and posted the second most wins (8) in league play since they joined the conference 20 years ago.

A four-game improvement (12-20) followed and after crawling, then walking through their first two seasons, Calhoun believes it is time to make a run this season.

If a run is to be made, the two seniors, Donel Cathcart III and Devin Morgan need to be the designated leaders.

“Donel and Devin have played a lot of minutes over the past two seasons and have done a great job both on and off the court,” Calhoun added. “Both are capable of providing the necessary leadership that we expect of them this year.”

A strong junior group includes Michael Akuchie, Garrett Covington, Naz Bohannon, Jamir Thomas and Christian Bentley

“We have a large junior class with three players going into their third season with our program,” Calhoun said. “Each has plenty of experience that we will count on as well.”

Calhoun’s largest class is his sophomore group where six players, including Darius Quisenberry, Jelani Simmons, Olamide Pederson, Justin Bofenkamp, Tyler Foster and Geoff Hamperian, are each looking to contribute.

“Darius is one of the very best guards in the league and had a great off-season,” Calhoun said. “Jelani worked on his body since the end of last season while Ola is up to 220 pounds, having gained over 26 pounds since he first stepped foot on campus.”

Two freshmen, Daniel Ogoro and Kenny Ganley, Jr., close out this year’s roster.

“Both Daniel and Kenny will redshirt this year and in the long term, will be really nice players for us,” he said. “Being able to redshirt both players actually puts us in a nice position. It’s what we did at Fairmont State during our national championship run because we had multiple fifth-year seniors on that squad.”

The schedule remains a challenge, something Calhoun has both welcomed and embraced during his three seasons as YSU’s head coach.

They have seven, non-conference home games and 16 overall, including nine league contests.

“The West Virginia game is going to be a really neat thing on Dec. 21 at the Covelli Centre,” he said. “The timing is tricky because it’s four days before Christmas, and we’re hoping to sell it out. We’ve gone from two non-conference games my first year, to four last year to seven this season.

“The schedule is really good and we still have the ability to buy some teams. The Horizon League is putting an emphasis on hosting those games, and we want to play quality opponents at home for the fans.”

The Penguins open their season Nov. 5 when they play host to Thiel College, then travel to Louisville to play the Cardinals on Nov. 10.

“We’re in practice number 10 on Tuesday and have had a bump here and there, but no major injuries,” Calhoun said. “We’re pleased where we are. This team is versatile and we feel that this team has a chance. Defense has improved greatly as we have a lot of length and interchangeable guys.

“We have everyone back, and along with UIC, are the only two league teams that return all five starters from last season. I really like this team.”

Next Monday, YSU head women’s basketball coach John Barnes serves as guest speaker.