Wright State volleyball: Raiders going into league play with momentum

FAIRBORN — The Wright State volleyball team wouldn’t have won two Horizon League regular-season titles and one tourney crown in the last three years without avoiding lengthy losing streaks. The ability to bounce back quickly was always its forte.

That’s why three consecutive losses in Iowa State’s Cardinal and Gold Challenge after a 5-0 start were like a punch to the gut. Sure, the Raiders were competitive — losing 3-2 to Iowa, 3-2 to Drake and 3-1 to the host Cyclones — but getting blanked in the event was an early test of their resilience under new coach Travers Green.

“We talked about the process and how we don’t want to get too fixated on the outcome of matches. But as athletes, we deal with results, and we might have looked at ourselves a little differently after that,” Green said.

“But we wanted to attack it with more of a growth mindset: ‘What can we learn from it? How do we respond to adversity and failure?’ It was good we could talk about all that stuff and see a positive result from it.”

The Raiders showed their mettle in winning the tourney they co-hosted with Dayton last weekend, going 3-0 by beating UD twice and Wichita State once.

“Dayton is a little banged up. They have some pieces missing. But they fought really hard. We were fortunate to be able to play at home for both of those matches, and that probably played a big part in it, too,” Green said.

The Raiders, who open HL play Friday, notched a five-set road win last season against the Flyers, ending a seven-game losing skid that dated back to 2002. Their series record is now 30-31.

“We’re just a really scrappy team. We do a lot of things on first contact, whether it’s passing the ball or digging the ball, that I would think frustrates opponents and really keeps us in a lot of matches,” Green said.

“One thing we’ve been talking about is just being a little more consistent. There’s stretches where we’re outstanding and playing lights-out … and we’re just trying to sustain that a little more and not go through dips.”

Green inherited a strong roster, but he had some work to do when he landed the job to keep it intact.

Previous coach Allie Matters, who took over at Illinois State, was like a big sister to many of her players. Her departure rocked their worlds, and Green had to win them over.

“When the change happened, we had to create those relationships and basically recruit them,” Green said. “We had those conversations. Some were a little deeper than others. But we really wanted them as quickly as possible to at least learn a little bit about who we are.

“It’s always — I don’t know if anxiety is the right word, but uneasiness when there’s a coaching change — from both sides. Who is this new person coming in? For us as coaches, you can watch video on players, but you don’t really fully know. You haven’t gotten to know them as people and watch them and see them grow.”

The personal touch from Green worked. Every player with eligibility returned, along with five of the seven freshmen signed by Matters.

“They all talked about it, and they were all committed and didn’t want to leave each other,” Green said of the veterans. “We have a lot of really, really talented players who would have had the opportunity to go basically anywhere. But they felt like it was important to stick together. They’re really special, and I don’t think that’s super-common across college athletics.”

Fifth-year seniors Lainey Stephenson and Jenna Story are leading the way. Stephenson is first in the league in assists per set at 9.98, while Story is first in total digs with 255 and digs per set at 5.43.

She’s also second in aces with 18.

But the youngsters are contributing, too. Aaliyah Byers, a freshman from Grover, N.C., is third in the conference in hitting percentage at .307 and blocks at 1.17 per set.

“She’s been awesome,” Green said. “As a freshman, she’s still learning a lot of things, but she’s really started at a great point.

“She has a really ‘heavy’ arm and can hit it really hard and fast. She’s going to be a great player for us.”

The Raiders (8-3), who were picked third in the league preseason poll behind favorite Northern Kentucky and Milwaukee, begin conference play at Cleveland State on Friday and Oakland on Saturday.

The Norse and Panthers stumbled through the nonleague season, going 2-9 and 1-10.

“I’m pleased with where we are and how we’ve performed and the development of the team. Obviously, we close that chapter, and it’s on to conference play,” said Green, a former associate head coach at Mississippi State.

“But every Division I volleyball conference is tough and competitive, and we want to attack it that way. We’re just trying to get better every match and peak at the right moments.”

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