Wright State’s Bill Wampler against IUPUI on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, at the Nutter Center. Joseph Craven/CONTRIBUTED

Archdeacon: Wright State basketball teams lift morale on campus

There was an old, white-haired lady, two young black women, a guy in a ball cap drinking a beer, a father and his little daughter, a pair of former Wright State athletes.

They wanted to let Katrina Merriweather, the WSU women’s basketball coach, know how they felt.

Earlier in the day, Merriweather — like her counterpart, Raiders men’s coach Scott Nagy — had been named the Horizon League Coach of the Year. And just an hour earlier, her 25-6 team had roared past Oakland, 83-60, in a first-round conference tournament game played here at the Nutter Center.

Now – as the men’s team was in the process of dispatching IUPUI, 71-56, in a first-round game, as well — she stood near a black-clothed backdrop beyond the end of the court and relaxed.

And as different as all those people were who came up to her, they all left with one thing in common.

Each was smiling.

WSU Athletics Director Bob Grant had talked about the importance of that very thing a little earlier:

“We need positivity around this university right now. We need the university to gain footing and a positive momentum and to heal to a certain degree.

“There’s a reason athletics is emphasized in all kinds of places. Whether people agree or disagree, it is the front porch of the university. It can bring positive exposure and good stories to a university.”

And after a very tough year, Wright State University needs all the good stories it can get.

A 20-day strike by unionized faculty members ended less than a month ago. During that time, there were student sit-ins, some classes were cancelled and there was vitriol on both sides of the picket line.

That was just the latest blow to a school whose finances have been severely hampered by years of overspending. Meanwhile, donations and enrollment have declined and there was the threat the school would face a state-mandated fiscal watch.

When the strike ended Feb. 11, student body president Daniel Palmer tweeted:

“The strike is over, but now comes the hard part. We have a campus morale that now needs lifted.”

And that’s what happened Tuesday on what has to be one of the best news days in Raiders’ athletic history.

The morning began with Merriweather and Nagy being named the top basketball coaches in the league. Nine athletes – five men’s players and four women – also got all-league honors.

From the 20-12 men’s team, 6-foot-9 post player Loudon Love won firs-team honors, guard Bill Wampler was named to the second team and both Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes were on the all-defensive team. Malachi Smith was voted to the all-freshman team.

For the women, guard Mackenzie Taylor got first-team honors, Symone Simmons was named to the second team, Angel Baker was an all-freshman pick and Emily Vogelpohl was part of the all-defensive team.

And truthfully both Cole Gentry for the men and Michal Miller for the women were deserving of recognition, as well.

The women’s team – for the first time in school history — won the Horizon League regular season title outright and the men shared the league crown with Northern Kentucky. Both Raiders teams are No 1 seeds in their tournaments, which resume Monday with semifinal play at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Tuesday night’s games at the Nutter Center drew a crowd of 4,936, most all of whom had to feel good about the state of Raiders basketball these days

“I think we’re putting a good image in front of a lot of people who otherwise might see our university in negative light because of the strike and some other things,” said Wampler, who led the Raiders with 18 points. “I think we show some good things are happening here.”

Meanwhile, the Raiders baseball team is on an extended road trip to start the season and its 4-4 record against nationally-ranked teams includes victories over top 20 teams East Carolina, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State.

“I say it all the time, in our 300 athletes we have some of the highest achievers on this campus,” Grant said. “These kids are juggling full-time academics with full-time athletics and we demand community service on top of that.”

When it comes to basketball, the two head coaches – and their staffs – take the lead on that.

“In a business that probably awards bad behavior like no other, Trina and Scott don’t buy into that nonsense,” Grant said. “Their priorities are in the right spot. I’m proud of them and the work they do behind the scenes and how much they genuinely love their student athletes.”

Since Nagy took over the program from Billy Donlon, who also was successful, the Raiders have gone 65-34. They won the league tournament last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years.

Nagy was the Horizon League Coach of the Year last year, too. Before WSU, in his 21 years at South Dakota State, he won coach of the year honors four times and took 11 teams to the NCAA Division II and I tournaments.

“But that doesn’t really tell the story,” Grant said. “This is a man whose morals and values are so strong.

“He took the team the Dominican Republic to help people this simmer. He’s heavily involved in the Samaritan’s Feet charity.

“Here’s a head coach who’s literally washing homeless people’s feet and providing them with shoes. The team is learning about life from that and those lessons are way more than just what you get on the basketball court in four years.”

Merriweather took over the WSU women three years ago when her mentor, Mike Bradbury, left WSU for New Mexico

It was Bradbury who first brought her in six years earlier as an assistant coach. When she met with Grant and Rod Perry, then the deputy athletics director, they were pleasantly surprised.

“She lights up a room,” Grant said. “There are fountains and drains in life and she’ a fountain. I love people like that.

“We had just hired Mike, but when she walked out, we kiddingly said, ‘Geesh, we should have hired her!’

“But that’s when things were set in motion. Mike did a tremendous job here, but when he left, she was a natural. First and foremost, she cares about her young women beyond basketball.”

Vogelpohl – who had 10 points Tuesday night while Michal Miller led the way with 22 and Mackenzie Taylor added 16 – agreed with Grant:

“The past four years Trina has done more for me than I could ever ask of a coach. It’s way more than basketball with her, way more than wins and losses. She gives you advice. She gives you love. It’s about growing as a person as much a player.”

Nagy said that he, his coaches and his players all “understand we are the front porch and there’s a lot we can do to help people feel good about Wright State.”

“We know the negative is what people remember,” he said. “It’s what gets printed most of the time. But what people see from the outside isn’t what we see on the inside here. There are a lot of good things happening at Wright State.”

He said his team can bring people up on the porch and help them look in and see that.

Grant said that’s already happening:

“I’ve had countless people reach out to me in the last three or four weeks and say, ‘Hey, I’m really rooting for your basketball teams. Wright State needs this positivity now.”

And just before he left the Nutter Center late Tuesday night, Wampler was reminded of that, as well.

“I just got a text message from one of my group members in one of my classes,” he said. “He told me: ‘Good game! It was awesome to watch you guys.’”

On this night, the basketball teams had answered the plea of the student body president.

They had done the heavy lifting.

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