Wright State women’s basketball coach Katrina Merriweather has all five starters back from a team that went 25-9 last year and seized its first Horizon League regular-season title. And those veterans have looked faster, stronger and better to her during preseason workouts, which means she shouldn’t have to do much more than just turn them loose when practice starts Monday, right?
Uh, not exactly.
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The Raiders were so short on healthy and reliable subs last year that the starters generally played up to 37 minutes in tight games, coming out only for quick breathers. Merriweather needs to develop some depth and figure out a rotation. The good news for her is that she has plenty of worthy candidates for back-up roles.
“As I sit here in September, it seems like we have 12 players who can get in a game and contribute. That’s a good feeling,” said Merriweather, who was a Wright State assistant for six years before taking over for Mike Bradbury last season. “We didn’t have that a year ago. I don’t know the last time we could put everyone in a game and not have a huge drop off. Hopefully, I feel that way on Nov. 10 (when the games begin).”
The Raiders went 15-3 in the league, beating their previous best win total by three games. They also advanced to the postseason for the sixth time in seven years, knocking off Central Michigan in the WNIT before losing a close game at Michigan.
Chelsea Welch, a 5-9 senior from Fairmont High School, averaged 18.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists while earning first-team all-league honors. Senior Lexi Smith averaged 12.8 points and 8.9 rebounds.
Juniors Emily Vogelpohl, Symone Simmons and Mackenzie Taylor also were consistent double-figure scorers.
“Chelsea looks really good. She usually does. I don’t want to minimize her tenacity and desire to make her senior year special. And Lexi is the same way. But Emily Vogelpohl looks amazing,” Merriweather said.
The 5-8 guard from Cincinnati, who made the conference all-freshman team two years ago, is coming off shoulder surgery July 14. She injured it at Michigan and tried to let it heal on its own, yet it grew progressively worse.
“When they told me about it, I was just crushed and thought we’d have to redshirt her,” Merriweather said. “But she promised me, ‘Coach, I’ll be back. You’ve just got to trust me.’ I was looking at the kid and thinking, ‘There’s no Santa Claus.’ But she shut me up. It’s like she hasn’t missed a beat.
“Right now, she can’t do contact. But her shot looks great, her conditioning is unbelievable, and she’s just really, really getting after it. I think she wasn’t satisfied with the year she had last year after being on the all-freshman team. And she’s acting like it.”
College coaches can work with their teams for eight hours per week through the summer and early fall (two hours on the court and six in weight training and conditioning), and Merriweather is pleased with the progress of sophomores Jalise Beck and Carly Clodfelter. The 6-1 Dasia Evans, who redshirted as a freshman last year, also can be an inside presence for the smallish Raiders.
But the four-player recruiting class has surprised the coach with how advanced they’ve looked. Leading the pack is Nia Sumpter, a 5-11 forward from Myrtle Beach, S.C. She played in the North Carolina-South Carolina all-star game in the spring and was her team’s MVP.
“She plays really hard, brings a ton of energy and is very, very coachable. And I would argue that most would have said she’s the least talented in the class,” Merriweather said. “But her transition appears to be very smooth. And the other three are coming along just fine — at a normal freshman pace.”
The Raiders will play Indianapolis in a home exhibition Nov. 1 and then begin their season at Northwestern (Ohio) on Nov. 10. The non-conference schedule includes games at Missouri and Georgia and meetings with Providence and Richmond in the Savannah Invitational.
Merriweather is glad her team will be tested before opening league play at home Dec. 28 against perennial favorite Green Bay.
“It was really good for us to play some very tough teams at the beginning last year. It did lead to us starting 4-4, but it forced us to dig in and learn and figure out how to win. I think that’s how it’s going to be this year, too,” she said.
“I do think there are some winnable games, a lot of 50-50 games and some that are going to be very challenging where we’re going to have to put everything together.”