Wright State women’s basketball overcome obstacles to make 3rd NCAA Tournament in school history

(cutline: Angel Baker (left) and Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather smooch the Horizon League trophy after the Raiders defeated Green Bay in the championshp game March 12, 2019. CONTRIBUTED
(cutline: Angel Baker (left) and Wright State head coach Katrina Merriweather smooch the Horizon League trophy after the Raiders defeated Green Bay in the championshp game March 12, 2019. CONTRIBUTED

The Wright State University Women’s basketball team faced numerous obstacles this season ― a pandemic, including positive tests on the squad, and academic budget cuts.

Still, they persevered on and off the court, posting an 18-7 record and becoming the only college basketball team in the area to play in the NCAA Tournament. This year’s squad, a 13th-seed, is the third in school history to play in the tournament and win the Horizon League championship. The team’s GPA is the highest in 11 years.

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Led by Head Coach Katrina Merriweather, the Raiders are one of a handful of teams playing in the post-season with an all female staff.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a group,” Merriweather said from San Antonio, where the team has been since Tuesday, preparing for their first round game. “When I think about the perseverance point, one other word that comes to mind is sacrifice. Our student athletes, our young women, came to the conclusion that they were going to do everything they could for us to have a season.”

Wright State is scheduled to face fourth-seeded University of Arkansas (19-8) at 2 p.m. Monday. The game will be on ESPN, and the university will host a campus watch party in the Student Union Apollo room. A second watch party will be held at Milano’s in Beavercreek, 2260 N Fairfield Road.

The Raiders, like other professional and collegiate teams across the country, did not have fans at their games this season because of the coronavirus. But during the NCAA selection show on Monday, a handful of fans, including players’ friends and relatives, were allowed into the Nutter Center. Some administrators, coaches and student athletes from other sports at the school also showed up to support the Lady Raiders.

The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed
The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed

It wasn’t quite like the team’s previous selection watch party when hundreds of students were in attendance, allowing the team to be surrounded by their peers, Merriweather said. Nonetheless, it was great to have a handful of fans in the stands ― while social distancing ― she said.

Evan Hannon, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, is a basketball fan who enjoys attending the Raiders’ games. So it was heartbreaking when he could not watch any in person this year. But it’s exciting that the team is playing in the NCAA Tournament, he said.

Navigating a basketball season can be challenging, given all that comes with college athletics. But doing so during a deadly worldwide pandemic in which games or the season could be cancelled added an extra layer of difficulty, the coach said. Several players were forced to quarantine throughout the season and a few opponents opted out of games because of COVID-19.

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In addition, Wright State announced plans to cut more than 100 faculty positions and eliminate some academic programs due to declining enrollment. There’s also been discussion about the future of athletics at the school.

“Anything that happens with the university affects our team; a common misconception is that we’re two separate entities,” Merriweather said. “No one wants to feel like their sacrifices are less important than the next, and we know that every student at the university has had to go through that. What we hope we represent is despite all those obstacles, no matter what they are within the university, that we are going to stand together and fight and represent with pride.”

Athletic Director Bob Grant credits the team’s success in part to Merriweather’s ability to build relationships, relate to players and her leadership. Those traits helped get everyone on the same page and kept the players focused, he said.

“It’s really a heck of an accomplishment; I could not be more proud of them,” Grant said.

Merriweather didn’t set out to hire an all female staff. Instead, she selected the best candidates who have the qualities and characteristics to be role models for young women. And the coaches just happen to be women, she said, noting that she’s proud of the group and all they’ve achieved.

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Overall, the team has gotten tremendous support since winning the Horizon League championship and being selected to play in the NCAA tournament, the coach said. Countless congratulatory messages have poured in via phone calls, text and social media, she said. Some area high school girls basketball coaches also sent well wishes.

“I maintain that every coach all across the country needs to be patted on the back because no one will ever know the individual struggles (they) have in dealing with a pandemic, because our profession is tough, regardless,” Merriweather said. “You’ve got 18-22 year olds, you’re trying to get on the same page to reach a common goal. We did do something pretty awesome, but I promise, we do something awesome every year, so does every coach all across the country.”

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