Lainey Stephenson may not have been on the court but the fifth-year setter and 2018 Notre Dame Academy alumna did what she could to help the Wright State Raiders volleyball team to its second undefeated run through Horizon League regular season and tournament play in three seasons.
The Raiders (28-3) will enter the NCAA Tournament on a 25-game winning streak.
Stephenson has not played since Wright State’s win at Milwaukee on Oct. 29 after tearing her Achilles tendon.
“I just wasn’t out there on the court with them. I watched more film,” Stephenson said. “I was kind of the voice in the back of our setter’s ear. I was helping (Katie Meyer) as much as I could. But she played one heck of a game. We wouldn’t be where we are if she hadn’t stepped up.”
Stephenson came in as a freshman in 2018 with new head coach Allie Matters and the Raiders finished 15-14 for their first winning season since 2003. But one year later, Wright State qualified for the NCAA Tournament, losing 3-0 in the first round to Purdue. In 2020, the Raiders were back in the national tournament where they beat Samford in the first round before losing to the Texas.
Fifth-year libero Jenna Story from Louisville Presentation came in with Stephenson and owns a program record 2,947 career digs on her way to the Horizon League Tournament’s Most Valuable Player honors.
“I knew when I came in here, my job was to change the program around,” Stephenson said. “It’s just really great knowing that you left it better than you found it. A lot of it has to do with the people and the culture around you all the way from the director of athletics to the coaches and trainers. Everyone is on the same page. It lets you thrive as a student, as an athlete and as a person. That’s what I want to be around.”
Stephenson credits Story for helping her put up 4,804 career assists, which is second all-time in program history. Her career-high came with 1,179 last year. She finished this season with 917. Stephenson made the All-Horizon League first team for the 2020 season that took place in the spring of 2021 and the second team in the 2021 season.
“Our libero does a great job of keeping the ball off the floor. It makes my job a heck of a lot easier,” Stephenson said. “I can pretty much set whoever I want, whenever I want and the hitters have the confidence to put the ball away. If they don’t, we’ll be patient, play defense on our side and put the ball away eventually.”
Coach Matters moved on to take the head coaching position at Illinois State after last season. Wright State named Travers Green the new head coach. He arrived from Mississippi State where he served as associate head coach for three seasons.
“We came in with a bunch of different ideas,” Green said. “They could have resisted because they had success with the way they’d previously been doing things. But they didn’t. Lainey has been a big part of that.”
The train kept rolling for the Raiders. Stephenson had surgery on Tuesday, Nov. 1 when the Raiders faced Northern Kentucky at home and had to rally from down 2-1 to post a 3-2 win. Stephenson could not be there for the game.
“That was absolutely awesome. We went through a coaching change so we were all kind of unsure how it was going to be,” Stephenson said. “We just didn’t know much about our new coach. We just knew he came from an SEC school so we were really excited to come into the gym under his leadership. His leadership, coaching style is really awesome. We really adapted to it well. We’re just really glad we got the storybook ending that we wanted (Sunday).”
Stephenson added the Raiders took the underdog mentality into the Horizon League Tournament. Wright State won 3-1 over Cleveland State on Saturday before beating the Norse in three on Sunday.
“We just had to stay hungry. We were picked third and we didn’t get a single first-place vote so that just kind of fueled our fire,” Stephenson said. “We lost six graduating seniors from last year. We knew we were good enough to finish first so we just had to prove that to everyone else.”
Stephenson graduated with a major in media studies and a minor in organized leadership. Now she’s focusing on sports management. She said it’s important to figure out how to balance things as a freshman so that it ultimately becomes a routine.
“The academics are tough here. They challenge you,” Stephenson said. “But we have a lot of resources to help you out. Wright State’s motto is ‘Person, Student, Athlete.’ They really rely on you to be a student second and good person first so academics are super, super important here.”
Stephenson, who played on the 2015 and 2016 9th Region champion teams, partook in a video wishing the Notre Dame Pandas luck in the state tournament this year. The Pandas won the program’s tenth state championship, and second in the past three seasons.
“That was awesome. I’m super, super proud of them. That program has really turned around in the last four years,” Stephenson said. “I was really glad to see the program kind of reboot, get new leadership and really be on a good path. It’s really awesome for those girls. I coach a lot of them in club. It’s great that I’m a Panda and now, they’re carrying on the tradition that Notre Dame volleyball is.”
Wright State will know its NCAA first-round opponent on Sunday. The announcement show starts at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU.