YOUNGSTOWN - Brandi Brown turns 21 years old Thursday, but it is the Youngstown State University women's basketball team that has celebrated a rebirth.
YSU (10-3) enters Saturday's Horizon League play at Valparaiso with a renewed sense of pride - something that this Penguins club hasn't seen since the heyday of women's basketball in the 1990s with three NCAA appearances in 1995, 1998 and 2000.
The Penguins were the dominant team of the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League). Now the Penguins are in the Horizon League and play Wisconsin-Green Bay - the perennial power of the conference.
It seems the Phoenix have run roughshod over the rest of the league for as long as YSU has been part of the circuit (since the 2001-02 season).
"Yes," said YSU coach Bob Boldon about whether Green Bay was the team to beat in the Horizon League. "I wish I had a follow up. They're the best team in our conference. Again, it's getting old."
Green Bay has been a mainstay in The Associated Press and USA Today top 25 the past couple of seasons. Not this year. The Phoenix are just ahead of the Penguins by a half game at 10-2, but still the dominant team in the Horizon.
But it seems the Phoenix have a new contender for this year's league crown in the Penguins.
Brown, who won another Horizon League Player of the Week honor for Friday's season-high 28-point performance and 10 rebounds at VCU, said this year's Penguins team is more mentally prepared than in years past.
"I think our practices have gotten better from the beginning of the year, practices that we've pushed each other and get more competitive," said Brown, who has nine double-doubles this season. "They want to win. They hold each other accountable. We set standards to make sure everyone is working hard and no one is taking breaks. What we've done in practice has turned over into the games. We've tried to maintain a high energy level in the games that we play.
"We've been playing well so I think teams will be taking us more seriously than they have in the past. That's a good thing. We still plan on performing and playing the way we have been and getting better."
The work doesn't stop in Horizon League play.
"Any chance we get in the gym and get better is definitely beneficial," Boldon said. "As January and February come around, you're more interested in playing games.
"I think we're at the stage where we have plenty of things to work on. This is a good time for us to get better."