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'Special group' makes for special year

By Jake Knabel on Dec. 8, 2015 in Volleyball

The current class of Concordia volleyball seniors knows exactly what it’s like to watch a program rise from near the bottom of the conference to the heights of a national tournament berth. The 2012 squad finished head coach Scott Mattera’s first season at 10-21 overall. What a difference three years makes.

On Nov. 16 members of the team gathered on campus to learn their national tournament fate. The room of Bulldogs erupted when the NAIA rewarded Concordia with its first-ever national championships berth. Mattera’s bunch earned it with 26 victories, including six over ranked opponents. Make no mistake, Bulldog volleyball is a national player.

Said Mattera in an interview with 104.9 Max Country, “I thought if we stayed healthy and stayed together we could be a top 20 team in the country. That’s exactly what we did. We got into that top-20 range and we stayed relatively healthy and definitely stayed together. In terms of what we’re capable of there was some could-of, should-of, but that’s part of sports. I don’t think we can scoff at the history we made this year. It was a really special group of girls.”

That special group included five attackers who pasted at least 240 kills, a setter (Alayna Kavanaugh) who earned her second-straight first team all-conference honor and a defensive specialist (Jocelyn Garcia) who was named the AVCA NAIA West Central Region Libero of the Year. A balanced team with no glaring weaknesses made good on the unfinished business left behind by past Concordia volleyball teams that fell just short of reaching the national stage.

Though the Bulldogs fell to Olivet Nazarene University in the opening round of the national championships, the 2015 season will be remembered more for its many thrilling moments. There was the 6-0 start and then impressive road wins at No. 11 Northwestern and No. 2 Midland, which had run off 22-straight wins to start the season before meeting up with Concordia.

“Going to Northwestern and getting that win there and going to Midland and getting that win there – those are big time,” Mattera said. “Now we know we’ve done it before and we can do it again. In those matches it wasn’t one particular thing that won the match. It was different people stepping up at different times. Team chemistry and diversity of offense and different players just doing their jobs together is what got us through that. That’s how you win those matches.”

Along the way, the Bulldogs had a ball. They swept through a Chicago trip that included a boat ride along the Chicago River, waited for Annie Friesen to do something weird and turned almost every postgame interview into a circus. It wasn’t hard to be captivated by a bunch that won while doing so in entertaining fashion. This team knew how to celebrate a big point. Looking at you, Claire White.

“I think our team chemistry this year was probably the best it’s ever been,” said junior Tiegen Skains. “A lot of us have been on the court together since our freshman year. Jocelyn and Annie fit right in, too. We always have fun off the court which makes it easier. We know we can trust each other on the court. We have fun no matter what. We always play better when we’re having fun.”

In turn, the Bulldogs gave their fans plenty to celebrate. No team in the GPAC played more home matches this season than Concordia, which treated its fans 17 times inside Walz Arena. It’s there were the Bulldogs clinched their first-ever journey to the GPAC championship match. They toppled No. 17 Northwestern in a quarterfinal gotta-have-it contest. Concordia then held off Cinderella story College of Saint Mary in the semifinals to earn another date at Midland.

Season-closing losses at Midland and to Olivet Nazarene won’t overshadow what the fun-loving 2015 group accomplished. Sure there were tears. No one wanted a ride that exhilarating to end.

“Our seniors that started off with me back in my first year suffered through 10-21 together and wondered if we’d ever be able to do this thing,” Mattera said. “They bought into what we were doing and our culture just took off in terms of why we play. Why we play isn’t for 26 wins. The tears in the locker room after that game from our seniors are a really good thing. It wouldn’t hurt that it was over unless it was a great experience. It was such a great group. We’re really proud of what we’ve done.”

Concordia will miss the leadership of a senior class that helped the program bump its win total from 10 to 17 to 20 to 26 over the past four years. They will certainly miss White’s production in almost every facet of the game (1,033 kills, 926 digs and 130 aces as a Bulldog).

But the bulk of the team returns. Junior Paige Getz is on the cusp of 1,000 career kills and Friesen and Garcia, both sophomores, blossomed into stars in 2015. At setter, Kavanaugh will return for the final year of a career that has seen her get better every season. The 2016 cupboard will be stocked with six returning all-conference players to combine with the incoming class of recruits.

 “We’re really excited,” Mattera said. “We’re bringing in some kids who will make an immediate impact. But when you’re returning six all-conference players there’s not as much room as there are some years. I think people will be impressed with this recruiting class.”

Considering what 2015 brought, the 2016 season will have a lot to live up to. Said Getz earlier this season, “This has been one of the most fun seasons just because we know we can beat anybody.” With the wealth of talent and experience set to return, that mindset, which did not exist in 2012, is unlikely to change. Is it August 2016 yet?