In midst of pandemic, Wright State women’s basketball thankful for opportunity to play

Wright State’s Angel Baker splits two NKU defenders during Thursday night’s game at the Nutter Center. WSU Athletics photos
Wright State’s Angel Baker splits two NKU defenders during Thursday night’s game at the Nutter Center. WSU Athletics photos

Raiders open the season vs. Toledo on Nov. 25

Wright State women’s basketball coach Katrina Merriweather loves competing for championships — and she has a team this season with a clear shot at another Horizon League title — but wins and losses aren’t her priority these days, no matter how foreign that may be to her nature.

The Raiders have been practicing for a couple of weeks but seldom, if ever, have had a full squad because of strict COVID-19 protocols. Players can be quarantined even without a positive test.

“Whenever someone sneezes, our precautions come into play, which is great. We want everyone to stay healthy. But it makes it a little tough for continuity,” she said.

The season will be like navigating a minefield, too. The Raiders open against Toledo at home Nov. 25 and will play just three more non-league games (at Butler, home against Bradley and at Michigan) before starting conference play Dec. 12.

In the league, Merriweather said teams will play each other at the same site on back-to-back days to try to reduce their exposure to the virus. But a single positive test at any point means no games for the entire team for 14 days.

“Let’s just think about how a kid would feel if they were the one that tested positive first — and then they feel responsible for everyone else not being able to play,” Merriweather said.

“Their mental health is so far a priority above anything else we could be doing or talking about right now. Honestly, that’s where the majority of our energy is going. … I just can’t imagine being 18 to 22 years old in 2020.”

That’s why Merriweather won’t be looking at the final standings to gauge whether the season was a success. What she’s more interested in is making sure Wright State leads the league in smiles.

“We’re really focusing on having a good time,” she said. "Any kid who has questioned their love and passion for the game, we’re going to restore it this year.

“It’s going to be a good time. We’re going to run up and down as hard and fast as we can, be thankful for the opportunity to play, roll the ball out and see what happens.”

Merriweather didn’t become a two-time league coach of the year — and average 23.5 wins in her first four seasons with the Raiders — without knowing how to push and cajole to get the best from her players.

But in the year of COVID-19,, she needed to rethink what she puts at the top of the pyramid in team goals.

“We just have to be realistic,” she said. "We didn’t have postseason workouts (last spring) and didn’t have them the entire summer. There are going to be some things that won’t be where they were at the same time a year ago.

"Putting expectations on these women when there’s already so much going on in a world that has changed (isn’t fair). They don’t go home, so the ones who chose Wright State because it’s close to their families, we’ve asked them to not make that trip. We have a couple who probably would have flown home to see their parents, but they’ve been committed to staying in town so as to not increase exposure.

“The majority of their classes are online and virtual. They’re just not having a traditional college experience right now. That’s stressful enough. Basketball is supposed to be fun and a safe place. And we’re going to make sure we do everything we can so it stays that way.”

Merriweather isn’t kidding about picking up the pace and playing a 94-foot game. And while that’s the style most players prefer, it also could ultimately make her job easier.

She believes the Raiders, who went 19-12 and finished in a tie for second in the league last season, will be talented, athletic and deep. They return the league’s leading rebounding in Tyler Frierson (9.0 per game) and third-leading scorer in Angel Baker (16.5).

But the one downside to having a loaded roster is making sure the minutes are distributed fairly.

“Of our 15 players, I have 13 who I’m going to have to figure out how to get in the game. That’s the challenge,” she said. "I tell people all the time, ‘It was so much easier in ’16 and ’17 when we had seven or eight players, and I didn’t have to make any decisions. You play them, and, when they get tired, you sub them.’

“Well, we’re going to press a lot this year because I need my perimeter players to get tired so I can sub them out — just to get everybody some significant playing time.”

That strategy would also seem to mesh with team goal No. 1.

“We need to keep the student-athlete experience at the center of all this, which should help us keep the season in perspective with just how competitive we (coaches) all are,” Merriweather said.

“If we do that, it can be a year we enjoy regardless of what gets thrown at us.”

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