Wright State volleyball: Story’s skill, energy paving way for Raiders

FAIRBORN — Wright State volleyball star Jenna Story has racked up the third-most digs in NCAA history, and all of those dives to save points means she’s spent more time on gymnasium floors than a dust mop.

The fifth-year senior libero from Louisville has 2,906 digs in her career. She’s first in the Horizon League and 12th in the country this season with 5.33 per set. She’s finished second nationally in that category twice.

Hitting the deck so much to stop opposing kills would seem to be hazardous to her health. But Story says with a smile: “Luckily, I was taught how to dive pretty smoothy at a younger age.”

That may be true, but her pursuit of the ball at times has sent her crashing into benches and teammates. But the way she looks at it, she’s just doing her job.

Story said the key to being good at digs is “not worrying about the pain you’re going to inflict on yourself, going for a ball. You just have to have the mentality you’re not going to let the ball hit the floor.

“I don’t want other people to have kills on me. They can have a kill, I just don’t want them on ME!”

That competitive spirit and reckless abandon has helped Story win three league defensive player of the year awards (and likely a fourth this year) and has led the Raiders to their best season yet so far.

They’re 26-3 overall and 18-0 in the HL and are just the fourth team since they joined the league in 1994 to get through conference play unscathed, joining Notre Dame (10-0 in ‘94), Milwaukee (16-0 in 2011) and Wright State (14-0 in ‘20).

They’ve notched a school-record 21 straight wins on their way to their third regular-season title in four years, and they’ll host the league tourney as the No. 1 seed in McLin Gym this weekend.

Third-seeded Green Bay will play sixth-seeded Youngstown State at 3 p.m. Friday, and fourth-seeded Cleveland State will face No. 5 Milwaukee at 6.

The Raiders have a bye into the semifinals and will meet the lower remaining seed at 3 p.m. Saturday. No. 2 seed Northern Kentucky will face the higher seed at 6 p.m.

The finals are 2 p.m. Sunday, and the winner will earn an NCAA tourney berth.

Asked what reaching that stage is like, Story, who’s been there twice before, gushed: “Oh my gosh, it’s awesome. It’s everyone’s dream.

“Growing up, you watch it. You always get inspired to do it but you never know if you actually will.”

And to think, Story contemplated not returning this season after coach Allie Matters left for Illinois State last spring.

A new staff was coming in, and Story, who was set to take her “Covid year” — the extra season of eligibility granted to all athletes because of the pandemic — waffled over whether to play for the Raiders or take her talents elsewhere.

“I would get comfortable with (the coaching switch) and more confident in the season — and then I would think about the little things and how that would change, and it would make me nervous,” she said.

What tipped the scales toward staying was her teammates.

“What we have with our program is just so special that I highly doubt I could have found it any other place,” she said.

After the initial jolt of losing Matters, Story and the others quickly embraced new coach Travers Green and his staff.

“I don’t think we could’ve gotten any better coaches. Nothing is really different. We’re still very close. We joke around, and yet we’re serious at the same time,” Story said.

But the Raiders have had to deal with heartbreak to get to their destination.

Lainey Stephenson — the program’s all-time leader in assists and someone known for toughing it out through injuries — tore her Achilles tendon at Milwaukee on Oct. 29, ending her career.

The Raider attack figured to take a hit. But for Story, the more agonizing part was watching her classmate and best friend go through emotional trauma.

“It’s just sad. You could tell some energy changed on the team. I didn’t affect that match, thank goodness. But it’s still been a process,” Story said.

“It’s very hard. I’ve never met anyone who loves volleyball more than she does. The injuries she went through were ridiculous, and no matter how much pain she had, she’d play through it. It’s tough that the one injury you can’t play through — you can’t put a wrap on it — took her out.”

The Raiders have managed to win six straight matches without her, five in straight sets — mostly because they still have Story leading the way.

“We had a team meeting Monday and made sure everyone understands they have a huge role on the team. But we said, ‘As long as you stick to your role and don’t try to do too much, then we have a very good chance,’” she said.

The Raiders lost at home in the semifinals of the HL tourney in 2019 but hosted again the next year and won their only title.

“At the end of the day, it’s not going to be easy. Just like we had to work for the regular-season (title), that wasn’t easy,” Green said. “We know we’re going to have some challenges to face, and we’re trying to be as prepared as we can and leave it all on the court.”

The stakes are high. The Raiders made the NCAA tourney as an at-large team in 2019, but they probably can’t count on that this season with an RPI of 61 in a league ranked 20th (out of 32).

“Those are always high-pressure situations,” Green said of league tourneys. “We’ve been in some of those moments this season that will help us with that experience.

“We’re really grateful to be able to play at our place in front of our fans. We have a really unique atmosphere. There’s a lot of excitement around our program.”

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