John Nicolais is the associate head coach on the Youngstown State University women's basketball staff under head coach John Barnes. He completed his fifth year as a Penguin in 2017-18 and was promoted to his current position in September 2018.
At Youngstown State, Nicolais (pronounced NICK-oh-lay) is in charge of game scheduling, assisting with player development, game preparation and opponent scouting. He also serves as a liaison to the strength and conditioning coach, oversees the male practice squad and is active in the recruiting process. He assumed a larger role in the team’s defensive strategy prior to the 2018-19 season.
The Penguins have enjoyed an impressive stretch of success since Nicolais arrived on campus with Barnes in 2013. Youngstown State has played in a postseason tournament three times in their tenure, and it has also been on the WBCA Top 25 Academic Honor Roll four times.
YSU won 21 games and advanced to a postseason tournament in consecutive years for the first time in school history in 2014-15 and 2015-16. In 2016, the Penguins reached the semifinals of the WBI (Women's Basketball Invitational). YSU played host to a Women’s NIT contest in 2015, and it made a late-season charge in 2017-18 to return to the WBI.
On the individual level, Nicolais has helped develop five players who have set school records. Among the student-athletes Nicolais directly worked with in player development are Liz Hornberger, Nikki Arbanas, Sarah Cash, Alison Smolinski and Indiya Benjamin.
Hornberger was a senior in Nicolais’ first season, and she made a career-high 80 3-pointers that season en route to setting the career record with 1999. That record went on to be broken by Nikki Arbanas, who was in Nicolais’ individual group for her active three years on campus. Arbanas set school records for 3-pointers made in a career (209) and a season (89).
Nicolais coached Cash during the 2015-16 campaign in which she set a school record and ranked fourth in the country with a .600 field-goal percentage. That season she also became the first player in program history to lead the team in points, rebounds, blocks and steals in the same season.
Smolinski has been in Nicolais’ individual workout group, and she has set two records heading into her senior year. She averaged a school-record three 3-pointers per game during the 2016-17 season, and she led the Horizon League with 85 3s made. She went on to break the school record in 2017-18 for consecutive games with a 3-pointer.
Nicolais coached Benjamin during her freshman season when she was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman team. Benjamin went on to set school records for career assists, minutes, games played and games started, and she led the conference in assists in each of her last three seasons.
In 2017-18, the Penguins overcame early adversity and posted their best February record in 20 years to qualify for the Women’s Basketball Invitational tournament. YSU went 7-1 in February and won nine of its final 11 games of the regular season to climb up to a tie for fourth in the Horizon League standings. The Penguins set a school record for consecutive conference road victories by winning their final six Horizon League road contests.
Arbanas broke the career 3-pointers record and Chelsea Olson, another member of Nicolais’ development group, was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team. Olson earned the league’s freshman-of-the-week award an unprecedented four straight weeks. As a team, YSU led the Horizon League in 3-pointers for the fourth straight season with 276.
The 2015-16 team showed grit and resilience to finish 21-13 and advance to the semifinals of the WBI. The Penguins trailed by at least eight in eight of their victories, and they were down by as many as 14 points four times in wins. YSU won in the final five seconds five times.
Youngstown State set a new school record for 3-pointers in a season with 299 in 2015-16. Arbanas set the individual record with 89 makes, and YSU ranked 12th in the country with 8.8 3-pointers per game. The season also saw the emergence of Cash, who was named Second-Team All-Horizon League as she ranked in the top 10 in the conference in scoring, rebounding and blocks.
In his second year with program, the Penguins reached the WNIT for just the second time in the program's history. YSU won 21 games in 2014-15 and were 10-0 for the first time at the Division I level. Fifth-year senior Latisha Walker, a member of Nicolais’ individual group, set career highs with 10.4 points and 7.4 rebounds and ranked in the top three in the conference in free-throw percentage, blocks and field-goal percentage.
In the staff's first season in 2013-14, the Penguins overachieved to finish third in the Horizon League and advance to the semifinals of the conference tournament. A hungry group of seniors helped YSU win its first six Horizon League games and earn a regular-season sweep of Green Bay. Hornberger was named the team’s Coach Ed DiGregorio MVP after leading the Horizon League in conference play with 3.1 3-pointers and averaging 12.1 points per game.
Nicolais came to Youngstown as a highly-respected assistant at the Division II level over the previous 10 years. He helped Drury University to 101 wins over a five-year span, and he spent five years at Glenville State when the Lady Pioneers went 145-22. Nicolais' teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament nine times in his 10 seasons.
Nicolais was responsible for working with the Drury perimeter players and coached two All-American's and a squad that was consistently among the best in 3-point shooting percentage. During the 2009-10 season, Drury led the country in field-goal percentage (.491) and 3-point field-goal percentage (.453). Katie Pritchard led Division II in 3-point field goal percentage in 2009-10 (.505) and 2010-11 (.492), and teammate and All-American Lindsay Ballweg was second in the country in 3-point shooting in 2009-10 (.500).
Nicolais also helped with monitoring academic progress at Drury, and the Lady Panthers had the nation's top grade-point average in 2011-12 regardless of division with a 3.709. They had a 3.591 GPA in 2010-11, which was third in Division II.
Drury, located in Springfield, Mo., was 19-10 and went to the NCAA Tournament in Nicolais' first season on the bench in 2008-09. The Lady Panthers then went 28-7 while winning the Great Lakes Valley Conference and advanced to the Sweet 16 the following season. Drury won the GLVC West Division title and finished with 20 wins in each of the next two seasons. The Lady Panthers went 14-13 in 2012-13.
At Glenville State in West Virginia, Nicolais worked directly with two All-Americans and the WVIAC and GSC's all-time leading scorer as the perimeter coach. The Lady Pioneers were 33-3 in 2006-07, 30-3 in 2005-06, 24-8 in 2004-05, and 29-4 in both 2003-04 and 2002-03. Glenville State went 84-6 in West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference contests in Nicolais' five years while winning conference championships in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
Prior to joining Glenville State, Nicolais was an assistant coach at Gilmer County High School in Glenville, W.Va. His team in 2001 advanced to the state title game. Nicolais also served as head volleyball coach at Gilmer from 2000-03 and led his squad to a 115-47 record. The Titans advanced to the state semifinals in 2001 and 2003, and his 2003 squad won the West Virginia Class A State Championship with a 45-7 record. For his efforts, he was recognized as the West Virginia Coaches Association Region II Coach of the Year.
Nicolais is a native of Elizabeth, W.Va. His wife Carrie, an occupational therapist, and he reside in Canfield, Ohio, with their daughter, Harper.
2018-Present — Youngstown State Associate Head Coach
2013-18 — Youngstown State Assistant Coach
2008-13 — Drury Assistant Coach
2003-08 — Glenville State Assistant Coach