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From fall to February

Penguins conclude fall camp, anticipate Feb. 21 opener

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU’s Mark Waid runs with the ball during the Penguins’ final practice of their fall camp on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

There was frost on the new turf last Saturday morning at Youngstown State University.

Stambaugh Stadium, referred to as the Ice Castle over the seasons, truly earns its name as the mid-autumn weather sets in. Under normal circumstances, the Penguins would be knee-deep in their conference schedule, and preparing to try to make a potential run at the postseason with the days getting shorter and warm air being harder to come by.

That didn’t happen this fall, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Missouri Valley Football Conference and many other FCS programs to push their seasons to next spring.

Pandemic or not, spirits are high around first-year coach Doug Phillips and his football program at YSU. The Penguins wrapped up the 15th and final practice of their fall camp last Saturday on a brisk morning.

For Phillips, it starts with the fundamentals.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes First-year coach Doug Phillips talks to the Penguins during their final fall practice on Saturday.

“To be able to get through 15 practices and be able to measure them from practice 1 to practice 15, we made a lot of improvements,” he said. “I think our players know that we’ve got a long way to go, it’s a great starting point.

“The one thing that we’re going to measure — and I’m not measuring whether they made a mental mistake here or there — we’re going to measure effort and attitude each and every day. Are they coming out here competing in everything you do, whether it’s a drill to being on a team?”

Senior wide receiver Samuel St. Surin was on the receiving end of a 12-yard touchdown pass from junior Joe Craycraft during Saturday’s scrimmage. The Delray Beach, Florida, native said the adversity caused by the pandemic helped the Penguins bond over the summer and throughout fall camp.

“I feel like we’ve improved because we’ve came together as a family,” St. Surin said. “Besides the Xs and Os, we came together as a family. That’s big going into the season because when times get rough, having and trusting your brother next to you is a great thing.”

Junior defensive end Antoine Cook shared similar sentiments.

“It’s crazy how close we got being on Zoom and not really being together,” he said. “So, I think that especially with Coach Phillips, he preaches us being a family and us connecting with the younger guys and I’ve felt that I’ve done that more often.

“It definitely helped build us and it was weird actually doing it through Zoom and everything and phone calls, but it made us stronger and I think COVID definitely made us stronger as a family and as a whole.”

The Penguins held a couple of short individual periods before a four-quarter scrimmage. Besides the touchdown from Craycraft to St. Surin, redshirt freshman quarterback Mark Waid ran for an 8-yard touchdown and YSU knocked in three field goals, two by junior Colt McFadden and one by sophomore Grant Gonya. Freshman defensive back Keyon Martin hauled in interception early in the scrimmage.

St. Surin said he thinks that real progress was made over the course of the fall.

“With the first fall practice, new coaching staff, mistakes were happening left and right,” he said. “I mean now, I feel like we still have mistakes, that’s a given, but there’s less mistakes because people know what they’re doing.”

Along with the camaraderie of being a family, Cook wants to be there for his teammates.

“I did what other guys did for me and helped me grow,” he said. “All other older guys did the same thing, so I preach to them what I was taught.

“I’m always around, I let them know that I’m a call away and they could come over after practice, we can talk, and I can help them out with anything they need.”

YSU begins its season on Feb. 21 at North Dakota State, and will begin spring camp sometime in January.

Until then, Phillips wants his players to constantly get better.

“The one thing that we always say, is everything we do, let’s get one percent better, and if we can do that every day, then we’ll come out of this better than we did going in,” he said. “I just think improvement, constant improvement, whether it’s physical, mental, social, all those aspects in life.”

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