In between Saturday victories at this past weekend’s Bulldog Bash, members of the Concordia University volleyball team raced out to Bulldog Stadium. The wide grins worn on their faces told the story of what’s been an impressive start to the 2018 season. Seniors Kelsey Baarck and Jenna Habegger did the honors, ringing the massive bell that hangs from the north end zone brick archway.
The undefeated Bulldogs did not want to be left out of the #RingTheBell tradition that began with the football program and was also later adopted by the men’s and women’s soccer programs. The bell signaled yet another victory and helped drown out whatever frustrations may have lingered from a 9-19 campaign in 2017.
But make no mistake, the coaches and players know the biggest challenges lie ahead. Said Boldt, “There have been some moments in there that we have to clean up. Once we start getting into conference play, there are things that have to get shored up before we can compete with the best teams. It’s been nice to see our offense get rolling. Offensively, we’re executing pretty well. Defensively, we need to get better.”
Within the matches, sure, Concordia hasn’t been perfect. However, the results have been. The 8-0 Bulldogs have yet to drop a set. During the GPAC era (2000-present), the Bulldogs had never won eight matches in a row with each of the victories ending in straight sets, until now. When you break new ground, it’s fair to stop and enjoy the moment – even if it is only for a moment.
So far, Concordia has been able to overwhelm its nonconference schedule with superior offensive firepower. The likes of Habegger (84 kills, .333), Alex La Plant (52 kills, .212), Arleigh Costello (.337) and Emmie Noyd (39 kills, .295) and setters Tara Callahan and Kaci Hohenthaner have helped make the Bulldogs one of the NAIA’s most efficient attacks so far. As a team, they rank seventh nationally in hitting percentage (.279). They’re making fewer mistakes than a year ago and taking advantage of the ones made by their foes.
“Every single win has been different for us,” said sophomore defensive specialist Marissa Hoerman. “We’ve kind of been playing at the level of the team on the other side of the net. Like you saw tonight (Aug. 31 vs. Bethany College), there were some good plays and there were some bad plays. Every (match) has felt really different. I’m really looking forward to conference and keeping this going. If we can start with conference wins, it’ll be big.”
Hoerman and her teammates echo a lot of the things that Ben and assistant coach Angie Boldt are saying. The players are staying grounded while constantly being reminded about keeping the focus on the process. If anything, they are downplaying the 8-0 start because there’s an honest belief that the program is not yet where they want it to be.
At the same time, there’s obvious progress taking place for a program that did not record win No. 8 last season until Oct. 21. It’s a starting point for a squad that still has a fair amount of youth with sophomores like Callahan and Hoerman and freshmen Costello and Morgan Nibbe all playing key roles. So far, they have collectively exceeded expectations.
“The start we’ve had is really, really great,” Costello said after a recent match. “I love everybody on the team. We’re meshing really well with Ben and Angie and the new staff. It’s really exciting to see that we’ve done so well so far and hopefully we can continue it on into GPAC play.”
The Boldts have certainly made believers out of their new team. Said Habegger, “Coach Ben and Angie have made it pretty seamless. It was nice that we had them all spring so we kind of got to get used to what they want. Then I think preseason went pretty smoothly too. We’re super excited.”
Concordia will remain at home to kick off GPAC play. It draws College of Saint Mary (8-5, 0-0 GPAC) on Tuesday and Mount Marty (2-3, 0-0 GPAC) on Friday. Before the month is out, the Bulldogs will go through a stretch of six conference matches in a row against squads that were either ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll. That grueling run will tell us a lot about just how far Concordia has come since it struggled through conference play last season.
Said Nibbe, “I’m pretty confident going in. I know the competition is going to get tougher, but I’m really excited to get that feel of the GPAC and see what everyone’s talking about.”
Right now, people around campus are talking about Concordia volleyball and still trying to figure out what the 8-0 start means. Based on early results, the schedule has been undeniably favorable with five matches at home and three on a neutral court. The Bulldogs won’t face their first true road test until Sept. 13. Still, who would have predicted an 8-0 start?
“Honestly I didn’t exactly know what the competition level was going to be like,” Boldt said. “We’re really just focused on ourselves right now and trying to be a better team. We’re competing against ourselves every time out there. When we approach a match, one of our mentalities is that it’s a nameless, faceless object on the other side of the net. We don’t care who we’re playing. We’re trying to be our best every day.”
At the same time, it’s no crime to ring a giant bell and to have a little fun along the way. Through eight matches, this team has earned the right to feel good about itself. But when practice began on Monday (Sept. 3), it was time to refocus. GPAC play is here. Said Ben Boldt, “We have to continue to focus on fundamentals. We have to be able to stop people and adjust to what they do. We have to stay process-oriented.”
Tuesday’s contest will have radio coverage on 104.9 Max Country. Both of this week’s home matches will be streamed live via the Concordia Sports Network. The contests on Saturday will be hosted by Hastings College as part of the Five Points Bank Classic. For live coverage of Saturday’s matches, check out the following link at game time: https://portal.stretchinternet.com/hastings/.