When Allie Matters came to Wright State for her first head coaching job, she inherited a program long on futility and short on success. Just five years before her hiring in 2018, the Raiders had endured the second of back-to-back winless seasons in the Horizon League.
Matters, a former standout player at Seton Hall (2006-09), took inventory of her team. She saw the raw talent, so the product of Buffalo, New York, figured the program’s lack of success must have been rooted in something else.
Perhaps it was the culture — or lack of it.
So Matters sat down with her players, and, rather set out a list of dos and don’ts, she let the players have a say in what kind of team they wanted to be and what kind of culture they wanted to build. Sure, Matters had her own set of core values and expectations, but she felt giving the players a real stake in the program could make all the difference.
“I think there seemed to be issues here and there with the way the program was run with regard to freedom to make your own choices,” Matters said. “I have an open-door policy, and we’re going to have to do this together and we’re going to treat you like adults.
“I was able to inherit athletes who weren’t always starters … and I was kind of able to start fresh. I didn’t inherit a lot of seniority.”
Then she looked at the Horizon League. The conference took the top six teams for its postseason tournament, with the prize, of course, being an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the winner. Matters was supremely confident she could have the Raiders in that position sooner rather than later.
It happened maybe even sooner than she expected.
Last season, just her second on the job, Matters led Wright State to the conference title match and an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the Raiders didn’t have to sweat out the selection show. They went unbeaten (14-0) in the Horizon in the regular season and captured their first Horizon League Tournament title to earn the 2021 spring automatic bid. For that matter, Wright State’s only loss this spring was to crosstown foe and Atlantic 10-champion Dayton in a non-conference match in mid-February that the Flyers won in five, 15-13 in the fifth.
Wright State (16-1), which was eliminated 3-0 in the first round by Purdue in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, will face Samford (15-3) on April 14 in Omaha, Nebraska. Samford won the Southern Conference Tournament.
“This team has done above and beyond what I thought it could do my freshman year,” said senior right-side hitter Celia Powers, a first-team all-conference selection. “I’m so proud of everybody.
“We all work hard. We all want this for one another. The love we have for one another … we’re working for one another and not just as individuals.”
The calling card of this Wright State team, which has no player taller than 6-foot-1, is defense, and junior libero Jenna Story is the anchor. Named the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, Story, from Louisville, Kentucky, ranked second in the league in digs (6.10 per set).
At the net, senior Nyssa Baker, a product of Fort Wayne, Indiana, led the league in blocks per set (1.49). Senior Teddie Sauer, a first-team All-Horizon League selection also from Fort Wayne, and Powers also ranked in the top 10. That helped the Raiders lead the league in blocks (2.81 per set) and opponent hitting percentage (.107).
Wright State also led in digs at 19.67 per set. Powers said she isn’t surprised by how her team defends.
“The rallies go on for several minutes when we’re scrimmaging (in practice) because everybody is so good at getting balls up,” she said. “We don’t make many errors, and we keep our composure.”
Offensively, no one player has posted eye-popping numbers, but that mostly is because the Raiders tend to spread the wealth. It starts with junior setter Lainey Stephenson (9.31 assists/set), who became the first Wright State player to earn the league’s setter of the year honor.
Powers, Sauer, sophomore Megan Alders, Baker and senior Mallory Ladd have posted between 157 and 88 kills. Ladd, who is from Oregon, Ohio, and is just 5-foot-6, led with 15 kills in the victory last Saturday over UIC.
“Lainey has been able to distribute the ball,” Matters said. “We’ve been able to distribute it pretty evenly. We’re not like a team that relies on one hitter. What if that hitter wakes up that day and isn’t having her best day?”
Powers, meanwhile, has been the rock of the lineup. The product of Cincinnati plays all six rotations and has contributed a team-leading 157 kills, 17 service aces (second most on the team behind Story’s 20), 176 digs (third on the team) and 54 blocks (also third).
“She does everything,” Matters said. “Her teammates know what they’re going to get from her every time she steps on the court.”
And when Wright State steps on the court against Samford, they will know what to expect. The NCAA Tournament was a new experience for the Raiders last season, and having to face a team from the Big Ten made it a baptism by fire.
The players won’t be awed this time, and Matters said she expects a much tighter and more winnable match than a year ago.
“The first time around, we had no idea what we were walking into,” Powers said. “This time, we’re more composed, and I think we have a chance to make it to the second round and that’s really pushing us.”
For her part, Matters sees this as another step in the growth process of a program she believes will make NCAA Tournament appearances the norm.
“Every year, we’ve been able to check things off,” she said. “We’ve been able to mix things up and accomplish some things we never had.”
The Wright State-Samford first-round winner gets fourth-seeded Texas. Samford and fifth-year coach Keylor Chan defeated Mercer in the Southern Conference tournament to earn the program’s third NCAA berth in a row.
Junior outside hitter Lauren Deaton leads Samford in kills (4.56/set), junior middle Briana Holmes averages 1.44 kills and leads with 64 blocks, 11 solo, and sophomore libero Emily Naubert averages 4.25 digs/set.