The loss suffered at College of Saint Mary on Oct. 17 may someday be looked upon as a turning point for Concordia University volleyball. Over the two weeks that followed, the Bulldogs seemed to make the mental hurdle that it had been striving to leap all season. That loss in Omaha caused members of the team to have to look in the mirror.
It’s not that Concordia was necessarily expected to run right over the Flames, it’s just that the team’s performance and execution of volleyball fundamentals did not meet expectations. If nothing else, head coach Ben Boldt and assistant Angie Boldt wanted to turn that around before the season ended.
“At the beginning of the year it was just less pressure and having fun. We were winning and that was great,” Ben said. “Once we started getting into conference play, it was like, ‘Okay, the pressure is on now.’ We had to adjust and really be able to execute when it came down to it. When conference play started and we weren’t as successful on the court, there was a lot of gut-check type of stuff. We had to work through it.
“We just started playing some good ball in the last couple weeks and I think once the season ended, our team was hungry to get back after it.”
Down the stretch, the Bulldogs played like a team that did not want its season to end. That’s not always the case for squads that hover near the bottom of the league standings. Concordia went on to defeat Morningside and then sweep Doane in Crete while sneaking into the GPAC tournament as the No. 8 seed. Ultimately, the season ended with a conference quarterfinal loss at No. 5 Dordt, a team with national championship aspirations.
The sweep of Doane may be the closest thing the Bulldogs had to a signature conference win. In a clash at 12th-ranked Midland on Oct. 27, Concordia played some of its best volleyball all season while taking the first two sets and then having a match point opportunity in the third. The Warriors eventually rallied and won in five sets. If this makes sense, the feeling of being unsatisfied with a close loss against a top-notch opponent was another sign of progress.
“We had to keep our mentality strong,” Angie said. “Many times after a losing streak – against good GPAC teams – you can mentally check out. We weren’t going to allow that and they didn’t allow that themselves. We kept after it and we played good volleyball. They can see it now that if we are strong mentally, we can be really good.”
There certainly were flashes of brilliance in 2018. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 12-0 start that included a victory over McPherson College (Kan.), champion of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and national tournament qualifier. While saving her best for last, senior Jenna Habegger put together the finest season of her career and pounded a career best 17 kills in that win over McPherson. In the middle, junior Emmie Noyd earned second team all-conference accolades for the second year in a row.
Noyd and company came out on top in their first 25 sets of this season before beginning to face adversity. After a win over Kansas Wesleyan University on Sept. 8, Concordia won only one of its next 11 matches. It can be a challenge to stay positive during a stretch like that. The Boldts did not make it a priority to simply build their players up. They kept pushing.
“We needed to keep the gas pedal down on them,” Ben said. “We’re never going to get an easy conference match so we need to stay on them and keep a high standard. It’s not that we dropped our standard, we needed to keep going harder.”
Added Angie, “What we found was our team was starting to become content with just competing. That’s not where Ben and I want to go with this. We need to have a championship mentality and go get the W’s. If you’re just content, then you’re not going to get where you want to go.”
The Boldts borrowed from former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh by stressing the moniker, #champsb4champs. Walsh once famously stated that, “champions behave like champions before they’re champions.” More than anything, it was about embracing a mindset and a process. It probably wasn’t realistic to expect any sort of championship in 2018, but that did not prevent them from establishing some groundwork for future success.
Habegger and Kelsey Baarck were the lone seniors on the roster, which means the 2019 squad will be a more experienced one. Habegger (honorable mention), Tara Callahan (honorable mention) and Noyd each collected some form of All-GPAC accolades. Meanwhile, others like sophomore Kara Stark and freshmen Arleigh Costello and Morgan Nibbe gained valuable experience. A 6-foot-2 jumping jack, Stark has the potential to be a powerful hitter on the outside.
Of course there will also be newcomers to factor into the equation. The hope is that the new players will find themselves immersed within a locker room that has fully embraced what it takes to be champions. Based on the play of the 2018 team in the final weeks of the season, the Bulldogs may have begun to turn a corner.
Says Ben, “One of the themes we’re talking about with them is that good teams are coach-led, great teams are player-led. We want to create a player-led culture where they just can’t get enough reps and can’t get enough volleyball. The meat and potatoes of what that entails is getting reps when the coaches aren’t around. There is only so much time that we have with them during the day. They have to also do it on their own and hold each other accountable. That’s a big part of our message to them. Player-led cultures equal great teams.”