FAIRBORN — Jada Roberson looks around and wonders where all her friends have gone.
The Wright State junior guard is one of a handful of remaining veterans who stuck it out when coach Katrina Merriweather left for the next rung in the profession at Memphis.
It’s been a mass exodus. Merriweather took her entire staff and two key starters: leading rebounding and third-team All-Horizon League pick Tyler Frierson and all-freshman team selection Emani Jefferson.
Jefferson is second in scoring with a 10-point average, and Frierson is first in rebounding at six per game for the 14-11 Tigers.
First-team all-league guard Angel Baker left for Ole Miss, where she’s third in scoring with a 10.2 average. And Alexis Stover, who made 14 starts last season, transferred to Rice. She started eight games before suffering a season-ending ACL injury.
But the upheaval didn’t end there.
The Raiders started with 11 players this year and are down to eight because of defections. Student manager Jordan Stanley has been dressing for games because the program is so desperate for bodies.
“It’s been hard, but it’s life. You’ve got to adjust,” said Roberson, who has been a stalwart this season while leading the team in scoring (13.6), assists (2.6) and steals (2.5).
“You’ve got to keep moving, and that’s what I’ve been doing — trying to see things from the coach’s perspective and accept a new environment and see it through.”
The Raiders are 4-22 going into a first-round HL tourney game at Oakland on Tuesday and are on pace for their worst record in three decades.
They won the regular-season and tourney titles last season and notched their first NCAA victory in program history.
They were 19-8 and tied for second in 2019-20.
And in the six years before that, they averaged 25 wins and reached the NCAAs twice.
New coach Kari Hoffman, who had huge success at Cedarville University, knew she didn’t exactly inherit a pat hand. But she couldn’t have anticipated such a dramatic plunge.
“It has not been enjoyable throughout all the stretches,” she said, “but when you step back and look at the big picture, you see the ways you’ve grown as a coach. And I hope our players can say the same thing.
“They’ve grown, hopefully, in some intangible ways and in some ways on the court.”
The Raiders are averaging just 60.5 points and are last in the league in scoring defense at 70.9 per game.
They’re getting out-rebounded by 9.1 per game.
“It’s one of those seasons where you’ve got to find the silver lining and see some positives in it,” Hoffman said. “I definitely have seen that in my own personal life — some growth from the start of the season to the end.
“I think that’s what life is about anyway. This game can teach you a lot, and I’ve learned a lot this year.”
She’s had to take tough stands with players. Asked if the in-season departures were her decision or the players’, Hoffman said: “It just didn’t jell well. I think it was one of those things where we needed to coach players who wanted to be coached by us.”
Hoffman’s first season also has meant navigating Covid-19, and the Raiders have been hit with four forfeits, which seems to be the price they’ve paid as one of the least vaccinated teams in the league.
The Big Ten, ACC and other conferences changed their policies midway through the season. Since the vaccinated and unvaccinated were testing positive at similar rates, those leagues stopped handing out forfeits and declared all games missed because of the virus “no contests.”
The Horizon League, though, never revised its policies. It has handed out seven forfeits in all, meaning the Raiders had more than the rest of the league combined.
“Nothing we can do about it,” Hoffman said. “We’ve played a month or two months since then. That’s in the past, and we’re looking forward to the future.”
Wright State athletic director Bob Grant was transparent during the interview process and plans to give Hoffman a chance to establish her program.
“With our three final candidates, we talked about, ‘You’re taking over a team that just won a game in the NCAA tournament. But as the athletic director, I understand it’s going to be vastly different next year. This is surprisingly a rebuild year for a team that’s played at such a high level just last year,’” he said.
“This does not surprise me at all,” he added. “What I have a really greater appreciation for than I thought I ever would is how Kari has handled it. I knew she was good. I’ve interviewed a ton of coaches. And she stood out immediately as someone who I felt is perfect fit for us.
“Though it’s been a difficult season, she’s been so, so impressive. … I think the future is super bright.”
Hoffman landed four recruits in the early-signing period, but the Raiders are losing K.K. White and Jada Wright, who are fourth and fifth, respectively, in scoring. Jada Wright also is first on the team and fifth in the league in rebounding at 8.1 per game.
But the culture seems to be taking a turn for the better.
“They’ve gutted out one of the toughest seasons they’ve ever been through — a coaching change and just major transition in their lives,” Hoffman said of her players.
“They’ve persevered. It’s been hard. They’re not used to losing, either, coming off a great year last year. I’m just proud of them. Some of them have played banged up, and they’re tough.”
Though the rebuilding job might continue into next season, the Raiders know they can count on Roberson.
In a win over Detroit Mercy last week, the Raiders let a 16-point third-quarter lead dwindle to one. But the Muskegon, Mich., product refused to accept defeat, scoring two baskets in the final 84 seconds to seal the win.
“It’s our first year together, so I wouldn’t judge a book by its cover. You’ve got more chapters to read,” she said of the program makeover. “Give everybody a chance.”
Wright State at Oakland, 5:30 p.m., ESPN+