It’ll be a new era for a Concordia University volleyball program that has turned the page after celebrating the careers of accomplished seniors that helped the Bulldogs reach the national tournament in 2015. It’s time to get used to seeing the rise of up-and-comers such as Emma Brand, Alex La Plant and Emmie Noyd and some new faces like transfer Kelsey Baarck.
In some ways, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air for the Bulldogs, who have put the 2016 season in the rearview mirror. The most familiar names are middle Annie Friesen and defensive specialist Jocelyn Garcia. Every year is different, and head coach Scott Mattera is still figuring out how the pieces will come together this fall.
“We got exactly what we were looking for out of it,” Mattera said of the spring season. “We were focused on defense, intensity and having fun playing together. We wanted to get back to that passionate Bulldog volleyball that’s really fun to watch. A lot kids got a lot of opportunity with the seniors that are moving on. We have a lot of openings and there will be going into the fall. That’s been kind of refreshing for the girls.”
Following Christmas break, members of the volleyball team participated in 6 a.m. weight room workouts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for a two-month period. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were used for mobility exercises. In addition, Friday mornings included “culture breakfasts.” The team continues to collaborate with head coach Ryan Dupic’s baseball program on arm and shoulder workouts that make for more powerful athletes.
Some of the highlights of the spring season were matches against Central Community College, Doane and Nebraska Wesleyan. The Bulldogs also used special guest coaches as part of match against a group of alums and recruiting weekend.
A transfer from Mott Community College, Baarck could be an answer to the question on how Concordia can replace the combined 679 kills produced last season by seniors Paige Getz and Tiegen Skains. Baarck is a Frankenmuth, Mich., native who immediately impressed Mattera the first time he watched her play. Baarck redshirted this past fall and will have two seasons of eligibility.
She’s already catching attention with her athleticism. She’s the first player under Mattera to leap a 51-inch stack of boxes. There’s more. She owns the program record in the standing broad jump.
“She spent the fall just killing it against us in practice,” Mattera said. “We’re really excited about her. Her athleticism is a huge plus. She’s up there with the most explosive athletes that I’ve had here in five years. She embodies what we want Concordia athletics to be. I think she’s going to raise some eyebrows when people see her play.”
For the first time during Mattera’s tenure, Concordia elected team captains. The captain distinction has been placed upon Brand and senior-to-be Courtney Jurgens. Brand’s rise to captain status after just completing her first year as a Bulldog speaks volumes about the respect she’s earned from her teammates. Brand has hopes of filling the shoes left behind by Alayna Kavanaugh, one of the top setters in school history.
“It’s going to be weird watching a Bulldog volleyball team without Alayna setting,” Mattera said. “Emma got thrown into the fire last year when Alayna got knocked out with the shoulder injury. You could see flashes of what she can become. She plays with passion and brings some intangibles to the table. The big deal for her this spring and over the summer and the fall is consistency of location – every set being in a similar tempo so our hitters know what to expect. It also comes down to decision making. She really understands the game.”
Friesen missed the spring practice season while studying abroad. Her successful return from an ACL tear at the beginning of last season will have a say in whether the Bulldogs will enjoy a year of resurgence in 2017. Friesen had a monster sophomore season that saw her earn first team all-conference recognition in 2015. She will be full go when fall camp begins in August.
La Plant is a versatile player who figures to have more kill opportunities with Getz and Skains having moved on. La Plant pummeled 233 kills as a freshman. In the back row, Garcia possesses the most experience as a three-year starter. She has amassed 1,347 digs in her collegiate career.
“There will be some familiar faces even though we graduate a lot,” Mattera said. “Emmie Noyd got a lot of playing time last year with Annie going down. It’s pretty obvious that the potential is there. If you saw her play this spring you could see she’s coming around. We’re expecting her to take another step forward. On the right side, Jenna Habegger has been kind of the heir apparent for a couple years. She’s getting a lot more consistent.”
The back row did not get hit as hard by graduation. That area of the court includes names such as Garcia, sophomore Jenna Eller, Jurgens, Harlie Himmelberg, Madison Horne and others. Mattera calls the fight for playing time an “open competition” among them. Jurgens is highly respected as a team leader while Eller is already known for her wicked service game.
Lending support to the program will be new full-time assistant coach Abby Pollart whose official start date at Concordia is July 5. Mattera’s been sure to keep her in the loop in regards to spring proceedings. Says Mattera, “I can’t explain how excited and how blessed I feel to have Abby coming in.”
Now’s the time for making gains in terms of conditioning. Open gyms will be held periodically during the summer. The 2017 season is scheduled to officially open up on Aug. 19 when Baker University (Kan.) makes a visit to Walz Arena.