YOUNGSTOWN — Despite returning eight senior and fifth-year players this year, the Youngstown State women’s basketball team has one significant piece that it must replace this upcoming season.
Lilly Ritz, the 2022-2023 Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time First-Team All-Horizon League selection and the Penguins’ leading scorer and rebounder each of the past two seasons, graduated from YSU in the spring. She’s now playing professionally overseas for the Helios VS Basket club of the SB League Women in Switzerland.
“Obviously, we lost some big pieces from last year, but we have a ton of experience,” fifth-year guard Mady Aulbach said. “We have a lot of good guards and we (still) have great post play. … I think scoring will be a little bit more even probably this year because Lilly and Megan (Callahan) took a lot of that, especially Lilly last year.”
YSU acting head coach John Nicolais expects the returning forward trio of fifth-years Emily Saunders and Jen Wendler and senior Lindsey Linard to fill the void Ritz leaves behind in the post.
“I think we’re going to be post player by committee. Each of them bring their unique gifts and strengths,” Nicolais said. “A lot of it may just be determined by matchups and how we would match up with the opposing team. So we’re all confident in their abilities and they each bring different pieces to the puzzle. I think, as a collective post group, we feel like we can put some numbers up to replace what was lost.”
With Ritz’s departure, YSU loses 17.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, as well as her abilities on the defensive end to block shots and collect steals, as she led the team in both categories last season.
Saunders, Linard and Wendler have each been around the program and have played plenty of basketball. As a result, they have confidence that they can replicate a similar level of production together.
“(Ritz) leaves behind a lot of scoring and a lot of rebounding, but I think that we have the ability, we have all the tools and all the weapons to bring that as well,” Saunders said. “So I’m very confident in us three getting all that done.”
Saunders has her size and can battle down low with opposing bigs, Linard is good with the ball in her hands and her back to the basket and Wendler has the ability to pop out of the paint and shoot mid-range jumpers.
But they each bring a physicality to the post as well that stems from how the Penguins like to play, especially defensively.
“First and foremost, they are three great teammates and that will have a lot to do with their success out there,” Nicolais said. “They’re all pretty strong, and they can catch and score down low. We just gotta work on a little bit of the defensive side of things to work on ball screens and mobility and getting in and out of the post offensively, if (opposing) teams do that. But now, I like where they’re at and the fact that they seem to want to get better. They have a lot to prove with Lilly being gone, so I think they’re hungry for that. That’s important and I think we’ll see that show through.”
The Penguins rarely, if ever, played more than one center on the floor at once last year. So if Ritz wasn’t on the floor, one of Saunders, Wendler, Linard or Tenleigh Phelps, who transferred to Indiana University-South Bend this offseason, was usually subbed in for her at a time.
Saunders, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Tennessee who arrived before the start of last season, led the group averaging 4.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game in an average of 7.2 minutes of action per game.
“Since the summer, we’ve all been preparing for that role and we know that Lilly’s shoes are big ones to fill,” Linard said. “We’re all on the same team and whoever is performing the best, we’re all going to push each other and we push each other every day in practice. It’s awesome to see these girls in practice because it definitely makes me a better player. … All of us are pushing each other to get better.”
YSU opens the regular season against Xavier on Nov. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Beeghy Center.