A cardinal – as it often has the past couple of years – will likely be chirping outside the window of her office in the Wright State Pavilion today.
For Katrina Merriweather, the head coach of the Wright State women’s basketball team, the melodious redbird represents more than just splash of brilliant color on another gray winter day, it’s a sign that the bright times finally define her again.
Today, Merriweather almost certainly will be named the Horizon League Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year.
Her 24-6 team is the regular season league champion – it’s the first time in school history the Raiders have won the title outright – and it’s the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, which begins tonight with WSU’s first-round game against No. 8 seed Oakland at the Nutter Center. The winner will advance to the semifinals next Monday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
If put to words the cardinal’s song of celebration would say: “I knew you could do it.”
Merriweather has long thought the cardinal is a reincarnation her great grandmother, Pearl Posey – her beloved Nana as she calls her – the woman who raised her early on.
“We lived with her until she passed when I was nine,” Merriweather said. “I slept with her. I watched The Price is Right with her. She was the one who braided my hair. I spent a lot of time with her.”
Although Nana died 30 years ago, she remains the embodiment of the family mantra used to raise Merriweather: “It takes a village.”
Today, Merriweather has been able to further establish WSU women’s basketball as one of the best mid-major programs in the nation thanks to the support of another “village” that includes her mentor, former Raiders coach Mike Bradbury, WSU athletics director Bob Grant, who took a chance on her when some other administrators would not and, of course, her own assistant coaches and players.
After a four-year exile from college basketball, Merriweather joined Bradbury when he took over the WSU program in 2010. Over the next six seasons, the Raiders would win 128 games and get five postseason bids, including the program’s only NCAA Tournament invite in 2014.
When Bradbury left for New Mexico in 2016, Merriweather was chosen to replace him.
Her teams have now won 72 games in three seasons, gotten two WNIT bids and will get another postseason chance once the Horizon League Tournament is over.
After the Raiders finished the regular season with a victory over this same Oakland team last Saturday in Rochester, Mich., Merriweather admitted she was in tears in the dressing room:
“I was just really emotional because of everything that has happened.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the internet trolls were beating up on her.
One jibe she said she still remembers: “It said, ‘She’s got a better chance of being a samurai ninja warrior than a Division I coach again.’”
Drawn to the game
Kevin Merriweather was 18 and Roxanne Sanders was 17 when they had Katrina.
Just kids themselves, they went to live with Nana, though nearby family on both sides took part in the little girl’s upbringing.
“With me it really was a case of a village raising a child,” she said with a smile as she sat courtside in the Nutter Center after practice.
While her great grandmother especially nurtured her, she had certain ideas how a little girl should be. “With her I wore dresses and socks with ruffles,” Merriweather said.
Nana was not a big proponent of sports, even though Katrina’s grandfather, Willie Merriweather, had starred alongside Oscar Robertson at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis and then became a hall of fame basketball player at Purdue.
Her dad played at Purdue, too, and his Indianapolis-based AAU team – The Family – is known across the country.
“My dad wasn’t going to push basketball with me, but then a PE teacher in elementary school got me into a free throw shooting contest and I finished second,” she laughed.
The success helped draw her to the game and then her dad began to develop her skills and she ended up at the University of Cincinnati, where Bradbury was an assistant coach and already known as a top recruiter.
Often, because she knew the AAU world through her dad, she served as the player host of recruits coming to campus and soon she realized she wanted to be a coach herself.
UC made her a grad assistant and she then spent a year at Illinois Chicago (UIC) before Purdue hired her at age 23 as an assistant.
She was also just a year or two older than some of the players and at times she became too close to some.
She ran afoul with the NCAA when she typed and made corrections on a player’s term paper and made too many phone calls to two recruits’ families.
Although then head coach Kristy Curry said she twice looked in on the situation and saw no improprieties, Purdue turned itself in to the NCAA for the infractions and got two years of probation and lost three scholarships.
When Curry left for Texas Tech, Merriweather was terminated. The NCAA gave her a three-year show cause penalty, meaning a school had to make a case to the NCAA before hiring her.
Merriweather has never denied she made mistakes, but said they weren’t meant to defraud anyone: “None of it’s an excuse. When you accept a job, you have a responsibility. I tried to help people and be a good person, but I made errors in judgment.”
During her time away from the game, she taught grade school and helped coach her dad’s AAU team but admits she was crushed.
Some coaches in the business who knew her and her family – and the family values they stood for – tried to hire her, but too often returned with the same lament, she said:
“They said their AD didn’t think it was a good look, a good idea.”
Return to college basketball
Life brightened the day Bradbury, who had been the head coach at Morehead State, called and said he was taking the Wright State job and wanted her to be his assistant.
As much as she wanted to join him and get back in college basketball, she hesitated when he said WSU.
Her best friend in college had been WSU star Reggen Stewart, who scored 1,277 points for the Raiders in the late 1990s. Merriweather had come to visit her once and didn’t like the vibe.
The Raiders would win just six games Stewart’s senior year and were mired in what would be 16 straight losing seasons.
Bradbury convinced her to take another look. She did and discovered the new facilities and administration that would at least listen to her.
Best of all she had Bradbury championing her cause.
“One thing with Mike Bradbury, what you see is what you get,” she said. “He doesn’t pretend. We’re in a world where so many people are disingenuous. So many people are living and posting a life that really isn’t there’s. They’re just not honest.
“With Mike, whether you love him or hate him, you can be sure he’s going to be brutally honest.
“He went in and said he had known me since I was 15. He said I was a good person who hadn’t meant any harm in this, that I had zero ill intent in all this. He said I had learned some valuable lessons.
”And then he told me to just go in and tell my story and show them who I am. I did and I have to give Bob Grant and Wright State credit. The listened to me.”
WSU hired Merriweather.
“Afterward Mike teased me, saying he’s thrown me alley oops my whole life,” she smiled.
And this time she dunked the opportunity in glorious fashion.
This season she and her staff put together a team built on three veterans – 1,000 point-plus scorers Emily Vogelpohl and Mackenzie Taylor, along with workhorse Symone Simmons, who has over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career – added three top players in Arizona transfer Michal Miller, fifth-year senior Imani Partlow from Xavier and freshman Angel Baker and a cast of talented role players.
She said while it’s the most talented team she’s been around in her nine years here, what she appreciates most is the way the players learned to love and respect each other.
In other words, how they’ve embraced those same lessons she learned long ago and now is getting a chance to show everyone again.
That’s why that cardinal may well appear outside her window today.
It’s a day to celebrate, a day to sing the song of her wondrous return.
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