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Wheeling Park’s Vargo making mark early on at Youngstown State

There are no shortage of West Virginia connections within the Youngstown State men’s basketball program.

Head coach Jerrod Calhoun spent five seasons at West Virginia University as the director of basketball operations or an assistant coach. After leaving the Mountaineers, Calhoun spent the next five seasons as Fairmont State’s head coach.

YSU assistant coach Jason Slay was a standout player at West Virginia State from 2004-2007 and an associate head coach at the school when his playing days ended.

University High graduate Geoff Hamperian was the lone Penguin from West Virginia on last season’s roster, but that number has since doubled with the addition of Wheeling Park’s Alex Vargo.

The 6-foot-5 true freshman is one of three YSU players to see action in all 12 games this season. Entering Friday’s contest at Oakland, Vargo is seventh on the team with an average of 6.1 points. 

“It’s been a great experience,” Vargo said. “A lot of freshman might not get a lot of playing time at a Division I program, but we’ve had a couple guys out so my playing time has increased. The playing time benefits me and our other freshmen and should help our program in the long run since we’re getting acclimated to the playing style and how coach Calhoun operates.”

Vargo, second on Wheeling Park’s all-time scoring list with 1,634 points, has started five games, including the team’s last three contests. Each of his three double-digit scoring outputs — 14 in a loss at Clevleand State, 14 in a win over Carlow and 16 in a loss at Wright State — have come when Vargo was in the starting lineup. He also scored eight points with a pair of 3-pointers in a reserve role during a win at Northern Kentucky.

“He’s perfect for our level,” Calhoun said. “He’s athletic and he’s a great shooter. He got thrown into the fire during a pandemic with no scrimmages, plus we missed 21 days in November for quarantine purposes. He really hasn’t even had the proper training yet.

“But he plays with a chip on his shoulder. West Virginia players in general are always undervalued and under-recruited and that’s a state we’ll always recruit.”

Vargo has an advanced skill set for a newcomer to college. His 14 3-pointers and 40 attempts are both second on YSU and he’s been forced to take on a more expanded role with the Penguins having played half of their games without all-conference guard Darius Quisenberry.

“We’re really an upperclassmen based team and I try to make open shots and take what the defense gives me,” Vargo said. “The coaches have confidence in me making open shots and they don’t have a problem with me trying to get a bucket or two.”

One year after Vargo led all of Class AAA with a 27.8 scoring average in his final campaign with the Patriots, he is impressing with his offensive ability at the Division I level.

“Anybody who can make shots nowadays is going to find themselves on the court,” Calhoun said. “Alex has good size and long arms. I think he’ll have a great career for us and will take advantage of this year and just continue to get better and better.”

Calhoun credited Vargo for getting in better shape from the end of his high school career to his start with the Penguins, which has helped him during the transition. Still, like many newcomers, Vargo is working to get up to speed defensively.

“He’s like every other freshman in that he has to learn how to play defense,” Calhoun said. “He’s learning on that end, but he’s found a really good role on our team His eagerness to learn and get better has been impressive.”

One major defensive transition for Vargo has been finding himself in matchups with perimeter players. As Wheeling Park’s tallest player, Vargo usually defended the opposition’s tallest player in high school. That’s no longer the case.

“I’m trying my hardest and it’s been a big jump,” Vargo said. “I never really had to sitdown and lock up outside other than in AAU. It’s been different, because if I’m getting scored on, I’m getting taken out of the game.”

An advantage for Vargo during the transition to college has been YSU’s proximity to Wheeling — the same town Calhoun’s wife hails from. With the campus less than two hours from Wheeling, Vargo’s mother Debbie is able to attend home games.

“His mom did a tremendous job raising him,” Calhoun said. “He’s very close with his mom and his family and they’re all in on the Penguins. We needed this position filled and we felt Alex could do it at a high level with his family often getting to see him play in person, which helps.”