Second straight NCAA berth continues new territory for turnaround Wright State volleyball

The Wright State volleyball team defeated UIC on Saturday to win the Horizon League tournament at McLin Gymnasium. Joe Craven/Wright State Athletics
The Wright State volleyball team defeated UIC on Saturday to win the Horizon League tournament at McLin Gymnasium. Joe Craven/Wright State Athletics

FAIRBORN — Wright State volleyball coach Allie Matters didn’t expect to be hit by a truck Monday morning.

Actually, she’s perfectly fine, of course. But the emotional highs and lows of the grueling Horizon League finals match Saturday — and then watching with her team as the NCAA tourney bracket was revealed the next day — left her feeling as if she’d been run over by something with more than four wheels.

“I’m exhausted,” she said. “Everyone knows about the physical stress, but there’s also a mental stress that goes with this. … I woke up (Monday) morning and said, ‘Holy moly.’”

The third-year coach will have some time to recover before leading the Raiders (16-1) into their second straight NCAA tourney appearance. They’ll face Samford (15-3) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 14.

All matches will be played in Omaha, Neb., with the first and second rounds held at the Convention Center.

Since the field was trimmed from 64 to 48 teams, the Raiders won’t have to start out against a daunting opponent as they did in facing Purdue on the road the last time the tourney was played in 2019.

They lost in three sets. And while Samford has won three consecutive Southern Conference tourney titles — and has the league player of the year in outside hitter Sierra Rayzor — it’s not like having an opener against a superpower in front of its rabid fan base.

The top 16 seeds received byes into the second round this year. The Wright State-Samford winner will play No. 4 overall seed Texas on April 15.

“Samford is a great draw for us. I think they’ll be very manageable,” Matters said. “It’s one thing if you draw Texas in the first round. Last year playing Purdue, we definitely scouted and prepared the team the best we could, but that’s just a different level of volleyball.

“To be able to draw a manageable team that we’ll definitely be able to compete with, I think the team is rejuvenated.”

The Raiders are also drawing inspiration from the NCAA win by the women’s basketball team, which knocked off fourth-seeded Arkansas on March 22.

The two squads have a special bond, frequently sitting courtside at each other’s games (when fans were allowed).

Matters and her players also attended the NCAA Selection Show watch party for women’s hoops in the Nutter Center — and then cheered from afar as Wright State became the first team to beat a top-four seed in the opening round since 2012.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, did you see that upset last night?’ The team loves stories like that. But it’s another thing when it’s, ‘Hey, I’m in class with that player. She lives in the same apartment complex as me,’” she said.

“Our team thought that was so cool and are really motivated by that.”

The volleyball program is in unprecedented territory under Matters. Before she arrived in 2018, the Raiders hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and reached their nadir by going 2-30 in 2012.

But they made the six-team HL tourney her first year after a 10-year drought and won it for the first time this year.

They have 22 straight league regular-season victories, and their back-to-back titles are the first two in program history.

They also became the first team in any sport at Wright State to earn an NCAA at-large berth in 2019.

“I’d like to say there’s a secret ingredient. Or, ‘I can’t tell anyone what I did,’” she said with a laugh. “But I just treat the players as people. They have a say in what goes on in the program. I value their opinion. Our door is always open.

“I’m also pretty bold. I don’t sugarcoat things for them. The best players will play for me whether you’re a freshman or fifth-year senior.”

Matters — who spent seven years as an assistant at Seton Hall (her alma mater) and is a former All-Big East player — has racked up a 55-21 record so far.

Going into the season, Wright State had the second-worst league winning percentage (.382) and overall winning percentage (.406) in HL history. Only Youngstown State is worse.

“When I took over the program, they said the Horizon League takes the top six teams (for the conference tourney). I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? We can definitely do that,’” she said. “We’ll chip away. We’ll go up one spot every year.”

But the Raiders have surpassed even her expectations.

“We got that sixth seed my first year, then the third seed my second year, and now we’re undefeated in the league,” she said. “It’s like, wow, I didn’t think it’d be this quick.”

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