There are obvious changes in the Youngstown State women's basketball program for the 2013-14 season. The most apparent is new head coach John Barnes, and there will be a new leader on the court with the graduation of Horizon League Player of the Year Brandi Brown. But the most important change has nothing to do with coaches, schemes or personnel. It has to do with expectations – now and in the future.
Since former head coach Ed DiGregorio built the Penguins into a mid-major powerhouse during the 1990s, Youngstown State has been building – and re-building – to try and meet the standard that was set. The program finally got a taste of that success last year with 23 wins and a berth in WNIT, which was YSU's first postseason berth since DiGregorio's teams went to the NCAA Tournament three times in five years. That taste has made the dialogue change. It's made the culture change in the locker room from a group of young ladies trying to compete for the program's first conference championship since 2000.
Barnes came to Youngstown State after spending a season as an assistant at Green Bay, the only team that finished ahead of YSU in the Horizon League standings last year. While he is a head coach at the Division I level for the first time, he led Division II Michigan Tech to 156 wins and five NCAA Tournament appearances in seven years. His job, unlike his two predecessors, isn't to rebuild the program. It's to sustain success and strengthen the program for postseason play on a routine basis.
Barnes has overhauled the offense, replacing a five-out motion that focused on 3-point shooting and drives to the basket with a four-out or three-out motion and set plays. He's also preached for a more intense style of defense to improve upon YSU's efforts that allowed just 57.8 points per game last season. According to his players, Barnes's biggest attribute has been emphasizing the details of everything, something the team believes that is consistent with champions.
Youngstown State will obviously miss Brown, but the Penguins certainly have plenty of talent remaining to compete among the top teams in the conference. YSU returns nine letterwinners, 92.9 percent of its assists and more than 68 percent of its points and rebounds from last year. No team in the conference returns a greater percentage of its minutes and assists, and the Guins rank fifth in percentage of points and rebounds returning. As a result, the Penguins were picked to finish third in the Horizon League in the conference's preseason poll.
Heidi Schlegel, who ranked second on the team in scoring behind Brown last year, will likely carry a larger load offensively as she moves back into the post. Schlegel averaged 9.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last year as YSU's top option off the bench. She'll be joined in the post by junior Latisha Walker, a transfer from Xavier who sat out last season due to NCAA requirements. Jonna Raflund, a a 6-foot-3 freshman from Sweden, will add depth early with the hopes of increasing her role as the season progresses.
Senior Karen Flagg and redshirt freshman Kelsea Newman have the size to play inside and the shooting touch to play outside. Flagg averaged 6.9 points last season and is the top returning rebounder with 4.6 per game. She also ranked second on the team in assists last year with 78, and her 28 blocks were a team high by far.
The nine other players on the roster are guards, and three of the nine are seniors. Liz Hornberger and Monica Touvelle are a formidable 3-point shooting duo that combined for 127 treys a year ago. Melissa Thompson is a fifth-year player who started all 33 games last season primarily due to her ability to defend.
All five sophomores on the squad are guards. Shar'Rae Davis was an all-newcomer team selection last year and was a Preseason Second-Team All-Horizon League pick. She averaged 9.6 points and 4.3 assists last season while adding 4.0 rebounds per contest. Ashley Lawson will have an increased role after injuries limited her to 10 games last season, and Amanda Barger returns after appearing in 28 games a year ago. Taylor Hvisdak is a gritty defender who has developed offensively, and Janae Jackson, a transfer from Northern Illinois, will have to sit out a second consecutive season after tearing her ACL over the summer. Freshman Jenna Hirsch will start the season as the back-up point guard.
Youngstown State will play 17 regular-season games, including eight of its first nine, at Beeghly Center. The Penguins will open the season on Saturday at 2:05 p.m. against VCU.