Experienced Guins look to bounce back from disappointing season, Barnes’ leave of absence
Youngstown State was dealt a major blow on October 2nd, when longtime head coach John Barnes took what the school’s release termed a “leave of absence to focus on personal family matters.” The leave, which seems likely to include most, or all, of the 2023-24 campaign, knocked the wind out of the normally-steady program just about a month ahead of the regular season.
“[The team was] in a little bit of shock and disbelief,” associate head coach John Nicolais, who will serve as acting head coach while Barnes is out, said of the news. “They didn’t see something like that happening right away, so we left it open-ended for them to kind of come in and get some shots and talk about stuff [on the day of the announcement], and told them that we’re going to find a way to keep moving forward and be the best version we can be of ourselves.”
The Barnes bombshell came a few weeks after a lesser-noted piece of news that later gained heightened significance: the September departure of assistant coach Chelsie Butler for a job at Central Michigan. Butler’s position was finally filled this week with Teonna Jewell, who was most recently the recruiting director at St. Thomas (she was also YSU’s director of operations from 2015-17), ending a brief stretch where Nicolais and Malika Glover were the team’s only two coaches.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if any program is equipped to handle a shorthanded coaching staff, it’s YSU. For starters, Nicolais has been around for Barnes’ entire tenure, which began in 2013, and is more than capable of carrying the baton for as long as needed. The Guins’ roster also includes a whopping six fifth-year seniors, along with fourth-year seniors Malia Magestro and Lindsey Linard.
That veteran-caked group will attempt to correct a disappointing follow-up to the Guins’ 2021-22 Horizon League regular season championship last year – the idea of complacency came up multiple times during the team’s appearance at the HL’s media day last month – while providing needed stability during the coaching tumult.
“[The familiarity] will play a huge role, and I think that’s going to allow all of this to be pretty seamless,” Nicolais said. “We’ve talked to the senior class, they understand what the issue is, and we’ve asked them to kind of step up in their role a bit more than what we have in the past. From that standpoint it does make it nice to have that luxury of experience.”
“The team knows that we have objectives and things we need to get covered, so they’re pretty focused and want to do things the right way. So we’re trying to move forward as best as we can.”
Emily Saunders – In terms of on-court personnel, YSU will have to address the departure of Lilly Ritz, who was one of the top two or three players in the conference during each of her seasons in the Beeghly Center. To do so, they’ll rely on what’s always been a deep well of post players, led by former Tennessee Lady Vol Saunders. Saunders only played 6.9 minutes per game behind Ritz last season, but at 6-5, she presents obvious matchup issues for just about anyone. She’s a bit foul prone, but also potentially one of the league’s dominant players.
Malia Magestro – Magestro, despite less recognition than some other Penguins, has arguably been the team’s most consistent player over the last couple years and is also one of the best defensive players on the roster. Following the graduation of Megan Callahan, she’s probably the biggest remaining three-point threat as well – but perhaps just as importantly, she does an outstanding job of getting to the free throw line on a team that generally doesn’t get too many opportunities from the stripe.
Paige Shy – Vocal leader Shy also stands as a significant perimeter threat. She’s capable of game-altering hot streaks, and will probably be leaned on a little bit more as a scorer this season, given the 28 points per game that departed with Ritz and Callahan. However, she’s underrated as a physical presence closer to the rim as well; her 4.3 rebounds per game last season were second on the squad.
Dena Jarrells – The one-time Chattanooga Moc emerged as the Penguins’ top floor general last season, a role that had been something of a void in the YSU lineup in the immediate aftermath of Chelsea Olson’s graduation in 2022. Jarrells is a steadying presence who fits well in the Guins’ system, given her ability to keep the ball moving, along with a solid shot from the perimeter. Surprisingly, her 23.0 percent usage rate last season was eclipsed only by Ritz and Saunders.
Mackenzie Hurd – The Penguins’ final starting spot is certainly an open question right now, but Hurd seems like as good of a candidate as anyone to get a look, as the highly-rated 2022 prospect has the size and skills to be an effective wing. She would also help Nicolais integrate some youth in a key spot to prepare for the coming graduation avalanche. Hurd redshirted as a true freshman last year, but she offers the threat of dribble penetration to go with a capable shot, something that’s often been missing at YSU over the last couple years, beyond Magestro.
Mady Aulbach – The Horizon League’s undisputed NIL champion, Aulbach also remains one of the conference’s best on-ball defenders – arguably the best, though Bailey Butler may have her own opinions about the topic – but with limited offensive upside, she ceded what had been a usual starting point guard assignment to Jarrells midway through last season. She’ll still feature heavily of course, particularly when YSU plays the likes of Destiny Leo and Kailee Davis.
Shay-Lee Kirby – Kirby has proven a trustworthy rotation player and, of course, is one member of Youngstown State’s famed core of West Virginia natives and former AAU teammates along with Jarrells, Shy and Saunders. Though she only shot 27.5 percent from three at YSU last year, she fired at clips of 38.2 percent and 40.0 percent in her previous two seasons at Austin Peay, so some improvement should probably be expected.
Jen Wendler – The often-overlooked Wisconsin product is one of those six fifth-years who will be counted on for her leadership. She’ll likely spell Saunders in the post and keep things under control during her stretches on the floor, a role similar to what she’s done effectively in the past – though she might receive a few extra minutes, given the graduation hit to the team’s paint presence.
Abby Liber – An Avon, OH native who began her career at Saint Louis last season, Liber transferred back to Northeast Ohio in the spring and represents an intriguing blend of size and athleticism. She didn’t play a ton for the Billikens, but was nevertheless part of an Atlantic-10 championship team and NCAA Tournament participant, a nice dose of pedigree.
Bella Samz – It’s going to be awfully tough for any true freshman to see a ton of minutes for YSU this season, but Samz may have the talent to break into the conference’s most experienced rotation. She’s a dynamic and creative player who is also a plus defender, and seems like a perfect fit along the Guins’ perimeter.
Between the Barnes news and a couple key graduations, there certainly are reasons to temper expectations in the Mahoning Valley. However, it would be foolish to count out a team with YSU’s track record and talent level, particularly given the motivation of trying to correct a disappointing 2022-23 and return to a championship level that’s proven attainable in the past.
Besides, Nicolais doesn’t seem to believe that Barnes’ absence will throw things off track.
“He’s done a great job of allowing me to have a lot of input on things, so I feel like it’s just kind of moving over,” Nicolais said. “It’s nice that I’ve been with him as long as I have, so I feel like we can keep it kind of streamlined and not upset things as far as drastic changes.”
“It’ll look very similar, we’re not trying to re-invent anything.”
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