Wright State Players Find New Homes After Program's Elimination
There may not have been a way for the Wright State softball team to truly feel closure. But after the Raiders learned their program was being eliminated in June, they wanted to come as close to it as possible.
“Our team got together with all of our coaches and our families,” said Meredith Keel, an infielder who had just finished her sophomore year when the team was cut. “We had dinner and played cornhole, played wiffle ball. When we got cut, none of us could really see each other; it was over Zoom. This was kind of like our last goodbye.”
Of the 28 NCAA Division I schools to cut at least one sport since the onset of COVID-19, Wright State, located in Dayton, Ohio, was one of two to eliminate softball. Keel said she understood the athletic department believed it was a smart business decision—the Raiders hadn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and had a smaller roster than most of Wright State’s other teams. Wright State’s men’s and women’s tennis programs were also cut.
Former Raiders head coach Laura Matthews found out about the program’s elimination roughly an hour before the players were informed. She said she was shocked by the news, which sent the players scrambling to transfer, a process that is both physically taxing and emotionally grueling even in non-pandemic times.
Some decided to remain at Wright State, which honored their scholarships, to finish their degrees. But many wanted to continue their softball careers elsewhere and entered the transfer portal. Keel, who ended up at South Alabama, was one of eight of the 17 players on the Raiders’ 2020 roster to find a new home.
“It was particularly jarring to me because we had a beautiful field and a beautiful facility,” Matthews said. “I had been receiving a lot of positive feedback from our administration. The reason I was told is a fewer number of student-athletes impacted with greater cost savings. It was a matter of, ‘What can save us the most money without impacting the featured sports on campus?’”
In the fall of 2018, the NCAA changed the rules to make it easier for softball players to transfer, and 2020 saw more than 350 of them enter the portal. But Wright State’s players did so much later than most, after teams were finalizing their 2021 rosters.
Matthews, who returned to her hometown of Nashville to take the head coaching job at Belmont, said she barely slept for two weeks after the Wright State team was cut. Her phone was ringing nonstop with coaches calling about one of her Raider players. She was tasked with helping the Wright State players through the transfer process while also worrying about her own future as a coach.
“I couldn’t even go through a phone call with one college coach about a player without missing four other calls and having 10 text messages,” Matthews said. “Our phones were ringing off the hook to help them try to figure it out.”
Grace Gressly and Emily Daniel didn’t have to go far. Both Ohio natives, they transferred just a 20-minute drive away to the University of Dayton. Both had outstanding freshman seasons in 2020 with Wright State—Daniel, an outfielder, led the Raiders with a .432 batting average and Gressly, a catcher, hit .383 in 18 games.
The recruiting period usually lasts two or three years for high school prospects, but Daniel said the transfer process felt like that all over again, only crammed into a single month. Gressly was on the phone with coaches the night she learned Wright State was getting the axe and committed to Dayton within a week.
“Something I found about Wright State was I liked being closer to home,” Gressly said. “I really enjoyed having that last year. I want my parents to be able to come watch me play and not have to travel too far.”
Keel, meanwhile, went farther afield. Now a junior, Keel is off to a great start with South Alabama, hitting safely in her first seven games as a Jaguar.
Due to the NCAA recruiting dead period, Keel, who also grew up in Ohio, couldn’t go on an official visit. But she knew she wanted to play somewhere warmer than Dayton, at a school that could host games throughout the season. South Alabama, in Mobile, certainly fit the bill.
“It was hard playing (at Wright State) without a nice indoor facility,” Keel said. “The facilities here were such a big plus. My dad and I drove down here in the middle of the night one night to just see what my life would be down here. And I looked at my dad when we walked on the field and I was like, ‘I can see myself playing here.’”