By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Head coach: Scott Mattera (47-47, three years)
2014 Record: 20-12 overall; 10-6 GPAC (4th)
Key Returners: M Annie Friesen; DS Jocelyn Garcia; OH Paige Getz; S Alayna Kavanaugh; RS Tiegen Skains; OH Claire White; M Taylor Workman
Key Losses: M Mariah Schamp; DS Carli Smith
2014 GPAC All-Conference: Alayna Kavanaugh (first team); Claire White (first team); Mariah Schamp (second team); Carli Smith (second team); Paige Getz (honorable mention); Tiegen Skains (honorable mention)
2014 NAIA All-America: Claire White (honorable mention)
Powerful floor-thumping kills. Thunderous crowd reactions. Twenty wins. First GPAC tournament win in six seasons. The 2014 campaign reenergized a program that has doubled its win total over the past two years. According to fourth-year head coach Scott Mattera and the Bulldogs, that breakthrough was just a start.
Do-it-all senior first team all-conference outside hitter Claire White has high aspirations for her third and final season as a Bulldog. Says White, “I can’t even begin to explain how much bigger and better things are going to be this year. People are going to see a lot more consistency and a lot more passion and a lot more of everything. We’re going to keep climbing the ladder and moving up.”
Expectations are as high as they’ve been under Mattera, who has stocked his roster with powerful hitters who figure to feast off the precision passing of another returning first team all-conference choice in junior setter Alayna Kavanaugh. She will pepper the ball to the likes of White, junior outside hitter Paige Getz, junior right side Tiegen Skains and middles (sophomore) Annie Friesen and (junior) Taylor Workman.
With a wealth of proven, seasoned veterans, the Bulldogs know the time is now.
“I want to embrace the role and not pitty-patty around it,” Mattera said. “It’s time for us to step up and be one of the favorites and be one of the top dogs in the GPAC. We need to embrace that role and start acting like it, instead of acting like the little engine that could.”
White is the headliner and one of the primary fuels for this Bulldog locomotive. After transferring in from NCAA Division II Washburn University in 2013, the native of Exeter, Neb., has piled up 714 kills while also handling a heavy burden defensively.
While focused on being a solid all-around squad, Concordia will again thrill fans with its powerful attacking style. Last season the Bulldogs spent much of the year ranked among the top 25 teams nationally in terms of hitting percentage. They want to continue to cultivate a spirited Walz Arena with a crowd-pleasing style of play.
“Our style is very powerful, diverse and fast,” Mattera said. “We’re going to work extremely hard defensively and ball control-wise, but we’re a team that wants to end points quickly. We want to play an exciting style that’s really fast and athletic and fun to watch. That’s the identity we’re trying to build within the program. I think we’ve got a shot to be even better in that area than we were last year, just because of the development of our quarterback Alayna and all of those hitters returning that understand shot making and putting the ball away.”
Like White, Getz, a 5-foot-11 native of Paola, Kan., has pasted more than 300 kills in each of the past two seasons. White and Getz are flanked on the right side by Skains, who improved by leaps and bounds from her freshman to sophomore season. She topped 200 kills and surfaced with her biggest performance of her career to date (20 kills) in the victory over No. 21 Dordt in late October.
And even with the graduation of second team all-conference pick Mariah Schamp, Concordia maintains solid depth in the middle. The 6-foot-1 Workman was hitting a cool .408 when she went down with an ACL tear at Morningside last Sept. 27. Known for her colorful head bands, Friesen has the potential and the ability to make a big jump of her own following a solid freshman campaign.
“That was a real strength for us last year,” Mattera said. “It was one of our keys to victory. You could see that in the matches we were successful in. It was when we were connecting with our middles. That’s a huge key for every team, but especially us the way we run fast stuff to the outside and diverse stuff to the right side. If our middles are on and holding that blocker, things go well for everybody.”
In the back row, Mattera must replace the production of defensive specialist Carli Smith, who racked up 1,761 career digs and passed serve receive at a 93.3 percent clip in 421 sets played as a Bulldog. Enter sophomore Jocelyn Garcia, who played terrifically in Concordia’s straight sets win over Hastings in last year’s GPAC tournament. Both the Dinkels, Kendra and Kelsey, also figure into the mix. Kendra has proven she can step into the role having dug up 24 attacks versus Nebraska Wesleyan in 2013. Meanwhile, Kelsey is making a positional switch after playing outside hitter.
Among the newcomers, Jenna Habegger made the most noise over the summer. The Pawnee City High School product followed up a big senior season by leading all players at the Nebraska Coaches Association All-Star Volleyball Match with 11 kills. Mattera also brings in another Exeter-Milligan graduate in defensive specialist Madison Horne, who was coached in high school by Darcy White, Claire’s mother.
Combine all these elements with the leadership provided by the likes of senior Libby Zagel and several others, and the makings are there for something special. White also points to the team’s culture of positivity as another important factor.
“We wouldn’t be the time we are without the relationships that we have on and off the court,” White said. “All the girls have such great personalities. You can’t not get along with anybody on the team. Our practices are enjoyable because we get along so well. Everything is always so positive.”
This is the time of year when optimism permeates virtually every program around the nation but for the Bulldogs, there’s a legitimacy to the feel-good vibes seemingly shared by all inside the Walz locker room. After being picked seventh in the GPAC last preseason, Concordia leapt up to fourth and hosted in the GPAC quarterfinals.
It was a big, big step. The question is: what comes next?
“We use the term breakthrough and it’s been thrown around about last season, but there’s still so much work left to be done,” Mattera said. “We’re looking for another breakthrough. We still have lots of goals in front of us: competing for a GPAC championship, making nationals and things like that. We want to come together and take full advantage of our opportunities and the potential we have.”
Expectations are clearly higher, but White vows, “We’re not going to let the pressure get to us.”
Concordia opens the 2015-16 athletic year for all Bulldog sports programs when it welcomes Bethany College (Kan.) to Walz Arena on Saturday, Aug. 22 for a 1 p.m. tilt as part of Launch weekend on campus.