The wait is over for Matters, volleyball team: Raiders open as Horizon League favorites

FAIRBORN -- Wright State volleyball coach Allie Matters had spent 13 months away from her team — from the NCAA tourney loss in Dec. 2019 to the first practice for the new season three weeks ago — and the players and staff still haven’t gotten over the elation of being together again.

“Everything was bigger than us,” she said of the pandemic, “and to step back from your sport for that long and be able to be rewarded by getting it back, I think there’s a sense of appreciation — like, ‘God, we can play again! And I’m happy to be here with my teammates.’”

“I’ve missed them as student-athletes,” she added, “but I’ve missed them more as people. To all be back again has been awesome.”

The Raiders will play a 16-match Horizon League-only schedule starting Monday, playing on consecutive days at Milwaukee.

Just like in basketball, teams will play two games at one site to minimize risk of exposure to the virus. The conference tourney dates haven’t been announced yet, but the 48-team NCAA tourney field will be picked April 4.

The Raiders played in the event last season for the first time in program history. Though they lost to Purdue in straight sets, it didn’t detract from a banner season.

They won the regular-season league title for the first time, set a program record for wins while finishing 24-6 and at one point had the nation’s longest-winning streak at 16 in a row.

They return four all-conference picks, including defensive player of the year Jenna Story, and were named preseason league favorites Monday for the first time since 2001, edging out defending tourney champ Northern Kentucky.

“We don’t have a lot of missing pieces to fill in, which has been great,” said Matters, who is in her third year. “During this time of uncertainty, the one constant for me has been the players I have. That’s been my saving grace.”

Not that finding their old mojo has been easy. The players were home for 13 months — taking online classes, training with their high schools or travel teams, working out on their own and, let’s face it, probably not pushing themselves as hard as they would in an organized team setting.

“That’s what we’re dealing with now. We only have limited time to get them prepared for a Division-I Horizon League volleyball match. Giving them the reps they need, but also giving them the rest they need has been a challenge.”

Matters can take comfort over having not just a slew of returning players, but highly decorated ones.

Senior hitters Nyssa Baker and Celia Powers and junior setter Lainey Stephenson joined Story on the 12-member all-league team last season. Senior blocker Teddie Sauer was an honorable mention pick, and hitter Megan Alders made the all-freshman team.

That’s pretty much the same nucleus that led the Raiders to their breakout season in Matters’ first year in 2018, including posting their first winning record in 15 years and their first trip to the six-team league tourney in a decade.

“We’re returning a lot of firepower, and we finally have some veterans,” Matters said.

Story, a junior libero, led the league in digs per set at 6.23 last season, while only two other players in the conference topped 5.0.

“Jenna is very cool, calm and collected,” Matters said. “She’s not a very emotional player where if you get her down, she’ll stay down. It takes a lot to rattle her. She comes to compete every single day.”

Baker was the only Raider to make the league all-tourney team. A transfer from Indiana-Kokomo, she led the conference in hitting percentage (.327) and blocks (1.3 per set).

“I think she questioned at first, ‘Gosh, should I even be here?’ She didn’t come from Division I. She was playing NAIA,” Matters said. “But she’s really come into her own. She just seems so much more confident in her abilities.”

Matters is grateful to the Wright State athletic and support staff that worked behind the scenes in getting the season off the ground.

And having gone so long without answers for her players, she’s happy to be able to say, “Suit up.”

“It really takes a village,” she said. “Getting everyone together to make this season happen as safely as we possibly can, the team is so excited.

“We’re testing, and we’re always going to have fingers crossed to make sure everyone is good to go. But we’ll take it this way over no way at all.”

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