Hopeless hoops? Youngstown State women are 0-28

Macey Nortey is a ball of pure energy on the court, zigzagging

through defenders with a nice, fluid dribbling style before

squeaking to a halt and zipping the ball to an open teammate.

When Youngstown State’s point guard took the floor to face

Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday night, she was a full eight inches

shorter than the player who was guarding her.

Working hard, but simply not measuring up – that’s the story of

the season for Youngstown State.

The misery keeps piling up for the Penguins, who fell to 0-28

after Thursday’s 84-45 loss. And if they don’t win their

regular-season finale at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday or a

first-round game in the Horizon League tournament, they’ll become

the ninth women’s team to go winless for a season in the past 10

years, according to STATS LLC.

“They have a lot of spirit and energy still, for the season

that they’re going through,” Green Bay forward Kayla Tetschlag

said. “And I definitely respect that. I just wish them luck. They

seem down, but I think they’re still trying. They’re still going to

finish out the season the right way.”

Green Bay players said they couldn’t imagine what it would be

like to face a potentially winless season, and no wonder. With

Thursday night’s win, the Phoenix clinched a share of their 12th

consecutive regular-season league title.

With his team leading 50-15 at halftime, Green Bay coach Matt

Bollant didn’t talk to his players about on-court strategy

adjustments. Instead, he reminded them to be respectful of their

opponents; he emptied his bench early in the second half, and Green

Bay’s backups didn’t appear to be trying to run up the score.

“I feel for her,” Bollant said of Penguins coach Cindy Martin.

“It’s a hard situation. Youngstown’s not an easy place to recruit

to, I’m sure. And I hope they give her an opportunity to get things

turned around.”

Martin declined an interview request from The Associated Press,

and she and her players were not available to reporters after

Thursday night’s loss.

But Tennessee State coach Tracee Wells can describe what they’re

going through. Wells’ team went 0-27 in the 2005-06 season, but

three years later went 18-13 and won a game in their conference

tournament.

Wells said she planned to reach out to Martin this week. Her

message: Hang in there, because things can turn around.

“It is possible,” Wells said. “It takes hard, hard work – and

as a coach, you have to be an eternal optimist.”

Wells remembers trying to remain positive during her team’s

winless season. She said she de-emphasized statistics and the

importance of reviewing mistakes on game film that year, instead

creating highlight clips that showed players doing the right things

on the court.

Sure, there were games she knew her team didn’t really have a

chance of winning. But she only had those conversations behind

closed doors with her assistant coaches.

“Every game, we felt like, ‘Today is the day,”’ Wells

said.

But that day never came.

“Once we actually finished the season without a win, the last

team meeting, players were asking me, ‘Why did we have to go

through that? Why would God let that happen?”’ Wells said.

Her answer?

“It’s going to be greater later,” Wells said. “I just kept

telling them that.”

And it was.

They won seven games the following season, 13 in the next. Then

came their breakout 2008-09, which included a 13-5 record in

conference play and a victory in the first round of the Ohio Valley

Conference tournament.

Wells said her players were disappointed after losing in the

second round, somehow expecting a Hollywood ending after enduring

so many losses.

“When they look back, they don’t have to hang their heads at

all,” Wells said. “Yes, they were the team that didn’t win a

game. But they also were the team that won a game in the

tournament.”

With Martin keeping mum, it’s unclear how she’s handling her

team’s snowballing losses. She didn’t show many outward signs of

frustration during Thursday’s game, and sporadic posts on her

Twitter account seem upbeat.

“Just finished shoot-around, we had a great one!” she posted

on Feb. 11. “The ladies are in great spirits and we are excited to

play tonight!”

They went on to lose at Butler that night, 82-36.

It’s been a rough two-year stretch at Youngstown State for

Martin, who was 70-23 in three seasons at Division II Indiana

University of Pennsylvania.

Martin didn’t inherit much experience last year, and the

Penguins went 3-27. She brought in some players – freshman Brandi

Brown has 13 double-doubles and came into Thursday’s game leading

the Horizon League in rebounding – but injuries have set the team

back this season; they dressed only eight players Thursday

night.

Still, Martin never stopped coaching.

With 1:54 remaining and the Penguins trailing 82-41, Martin

called Nortey over to the bench to diagram a play for the next

possession.

“It’s difficult to put ourselves in their shoes, definitely,”

said Green Bay forward Tetschlag. “It takes a very strong person

to want to come to practice every day and to want to travel still

and play the games. I mean, that’s a tough team. Honestly, they are

tough girls to want to continue this season and play as hard as

they do despite what they’re going through. I just respect them

very much.”

Bollant offered encouragement to Martin after the game,

recalling Green Bay’s victory in a relatively competitive game at

Youngstown State back in January.

“We played them at their place, they played great,” Bollant

said. “They were up 28-22, their kids were intense and into it.

And obviously, the grind of the year can be hard. But I really

thought the way they played at their place, they’re going to get

some wins at home. Unfortunately, that didn’t transfer to other

games. I just said, ‘Hang in there, and good luck on Saturday.’ I

hope they can get that one.”