Wright State volleyball team picking up where it left off

Wright State volleyball players celebrate a winning point against Ball State earlier this season. Joseph Craven/Wright State Athletics
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Wright State volleyball players celebrate a winning point against Ball State earlier this season. Joseph Craven/Wright State Athletics

FAIRBORN — Wright State volleyball coach Allie Matters has had a can’t-miss motivational message the last few years, selling her players on how they’re overlooked and disrespected.

But after back-to-back Horizon League regular-season titles and two NCAA trips — including the first tourney win in conference history last season, ending an 0-for-29 spell — she’s ridden that underdog theme about as long as she can.

“My spiel has changed a little bit,” she said. “We talk about, ‘We always have a target on our backs. Everyone wants to beat us.’

“The shot our hitters have been working on the last three years, teams are now taking that away. We’re being heavily scouted and have had to make adjustments. We have to fight every match we’re in because teams REALLY want to beat us.”

The Raiders, though, are managing just fine, starting 4-2 with wins at Michigan State in the Spartan Invitational and over DePaul in the own event last weekend.

Of course, that’s no surprise. They returned two-time league defensive player of the year Jenna Story, setter of the year Lainey Stephenson, a pair of all-conference selections in Celia Powers and Teddie Sauer and the HL’s leading blocker last season in Nyssa Baker.

Story and Stephenson are in their fourth seasons but are essentially juniors since the NCAA granted all athletes in 2020-2021 a free year of eligibility because of COVID.

Powers, Sauer and Baker would have graduated after last season but took advantage of the rule. Matters calls them — in terminology that probably will catch on — super-seniors.

Based on that firepower, the Raiders were near-unanimous picks in a vote of the coaches to win the league. But if Matters had to choose a team MVP so far, it probably wouldn’t come from that quintet.

Junior outside hitter Megan Alders has filled the one vacancy in the lineup at outside hitter and has a team-best 88 kills. She’s already earned a league player of the week award.

“She’s confident. She’s strong. She’s a leader. She’s our go-to player for sure,” Matters said.

Allie Matters, Wright State volleyball coach
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Allie Matters, Wright State volleyball coach

Credit: Chris Snyder

Credit: Chris Snyder

The Raiders went 24-6 in 2019, earning Wright State’s first NCAA at-large selection in any sport.

They followed that with a 17-2 mark for the 2020 season, which was played in the spring of 2021. They thrashed Samford in the NCAA first round in Omaha before falling to No. 4 overall seed Texas, which ended up losing to Kentucky in the title game.

That made for a quick turnaround to the first matches in late August. But the program has been galvanized by the return of fans, including a packed house for its four-team event last weekend.

Matters expects more stoked crowds for the combined Flyer-Raider Invitational this weekend. Wright State faces Central Michigan at noon Friday and Illinois State at 7 p.m. Saturday in McLin Gym, while squaring off against Dayton at the Frericks Center at 7 p.m. Friday.

“We’ve created a lot of buzz not only around our program, but within our department, around the state and in the nation. We’ve been trying to put this volleyball program on the map, and I think we definitely accomplished that,” Matters said.

“But now it’s, how do we sustain what we created in a very short time? There’s pressure that comes with that. There’s demands that come with that. But we’re definitely rising to the challenge.”

The Raiders were 54-156 overall and 20-86 in the league from 2011-17, never even qualifying for the six-team conference tourney.

But Matters, a former Seton Hall assistant, had a winning season her first year in 2018 and is 60-24 overall and 36-12 in the league.

That’s made her a hot commodity on the coaching market. But while she says other schools have inquired, they’ve all gotten the same response: no thanks.

“People outside of college volleyball — and even inside — say, ‘Why wouldn’t you take that job? They’re going to double your salary and double your resources.’ I think it’s so much more than that,” she said.

“It’s the roster you’re going to inherit. It’s the surrounding area — can you sell that school? There are a lot of factors that come with taking a new position.”

Matters isn’t having much trouble selling Wright State these days. She already has five recruits committed for 2022.

“I can’t help but become addicted to the process of taking over this program and winning with the group I inherited and winning with the recruits I brought in,” she said.

“My assistant Dan (O’Keefe) and I have worked very, very hard to get this program where it is, and I can’t imagine walking away from it right now.”