John Nicolais is an assistant coach on the Youngstown State University women's basketball staff under head coach John Barnes. He completed his sixth year as a Penguin in 2018-19.
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 four times in their tenure, and it has also been on the WBCA Top 25 Academic Honor Roll five times.
Most recently in 2018-19, Youngstown State went 22-10 and earned at-large berth into the Women’s NIT. The Penguins won at least 21 games for the third time in six seasons, and they set new program records with 16 home victories and 13 Horizon League wins. The coaching staff celebrated its 100th victory at YSU as well during the season.
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, Indiya Benjamin and Chelsea Olson.
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 Arbanas and Smolinski.
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. Cash finished her career holding YSU career arks for games played (135) and field-goal percentage (.570). She was named Second-Team All-Horizon League and the team’s Coach DiGregorio MVP in 2015-16 and 2018-19.
Arbanas and Smolinski rewrote the 3-pointers portion of the record book as members of Nicolais’ individual workout groups. Arbanas spent three active years on campus, and she held records for 3s in a career (209) and a season (89) at the end of her career in 2017-18. Smolinski went on to smash those records in 2018-19, and she ended her career holding every program record for 3-point volume – 3s in a game (9), season (109) and career (262) as well as consecutive games with a 3 (27). She also broke the Horizon League single-season 3-pointers record.
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.
Olson has been in Nicolais’ group her first two seasons, and she has earned Horizon League recognition both seasons. She was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team in 2017-18, and the guard was a second-team all-conference pick in 2018-19. Olson was one of five players in the country to average at least 10 points, seven rebounds and 4.5 assists in 2018-19.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2013-19 — Youngstown State Assistant Coach
2008-13 — Drury Assistant Coach
2003-08 — Glenville State Assistant Coach