By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director
Head Coach: Scott Mattera (10-21, one year)
2012 Record: 10-21 overall; 4-12 GPAC (9th)
Returning Starters: 5
Key Returners: Kelsey Dinkel (OH), Kayla James (S), Jami Nekoliczak (S), Katie Peterson (M/OH), Mariah Schamp (MB), Carli Smith (DS)
Key Losses: Amanda Abbott (out for 2013 due to shoulder surgery – MB/OH), Amanda Kisker (OH), Kim Miller (RS)
2012 GPAC All-Conference: Amanda Kisker (first team), Carli Smith (second team), Amanda Abbott (honorable mention), Mariah Schamp (honorable mention)
Considerable buzz continues to build in relation to Bulldog volleyball, even as the program comes off a 10-win season in 2012. Head coach Scott Mattera brought a new energy to the program upon his arrival in the spring of 2012 and has his Bulldogs pointing in a clear upward trajectory.
Second team all-conference selection Carli Smith, a junior defensive specialist from Temecula, Calif., and junior middle blocker Mariah Schamp of Arvada, Colo., enjoyed outstanding springs and are ready to lead a young, exuberant roster.
“The next step is consistency,” Mattera said. “We have the depth of talent in our program that all of our players are going to have to compete every day if they want to see the floor, and everyone knows that going in. The confidence and the expectation level that builds is going to be entirely different.”
Part of the newfound excitement and enhanced expectations for 2013 centers around Concordia’s propensity to push some of the nation’s top teams last season. The Bulldogs nearly pulled off a stunner over eventual GPAC Tournament champion Doane last October (lost in five sets) and even took a set from top five-ranked Hastings a week later.
With holders like Smith and Schamp on board along with a highly-regarded 10-player recruiting class, the Bulldogs will no longer be merely the little engine that could. The horses are in place for a significant leap forward in 2013.
“We’ve really established a lot of trust and a lot of energy around the program,” Mattera said. “I feel like the positivity around the program and the expectation level is as high as it’s probably been in some time here and that’s a great thing. We’ve really tried to change the culture, the energy and the expectations.”
Smith certainly has done her part to raise expectations. She busted out with a breakthrough sophomore campaign in 2012 in which she racked up 512 digs while still trying to get comfortable with Mattera’s defensive system. Now that she’s got that down, the prospect of what she could be as a junior appears rather tantalizing.
“Carli had a great season obviously,” Mattera said. “Even more impressive was her spring. Her spring was absolutely incredible. She really stepped up her game and changed a couple of things technique wise that turned her into a monster serve receive passer so I see her really stepping into that role. The other thing that obviously we were really proud of was her leadership.”
Smith says it was simply about gaining the confidence to compete in one of the NAIA’s top volleyball leagues.
“I think, for me, it was all about confidence,” Smith said. “Volleyball is a huge mental game, and when a volleyball player doesn't have the right confidence in herself, it's tough. So I knew I gained the confidence in myself and my teammates and that is really what made me succeed this past year.”
Schamp’s impact will be just as important from her position in the middle. Last season she posted 189 kills and a team best 77 total blocks in merely scratching the surface in regards to her vast potential. She is regarded as one of the team’s most athletic players and appears ready to move into a starring role.
The biggest question marks arise at the attacking positions where the team says goodbye to graduates Amanda Kisker (1,111 career kills) and Kim Miller while also taking a hit with junior Amanda Abbott undergoing offseason shoulder surgery that is expected to sideline her for the entire season. The trio combined for a total of 756 kills in 2012.
Enter 5-foot-10 sophomore Claire White, a transfer from NCAA Division II Washburn University (Kan.). White figures to pay immediate dividends after appearing in 30 matches last season as an outside hitter for the Ichabods. The Exeter, Neb., native prepped at Exeter-Milligan High School and fits perfectly into the Bulldog volleyball program.
“It’s a blessing to have her here, not only for her volleyball talent but she’s a very big personality,” Mattera said. “I know she’s going to move right into a leadership role in terms of inspiration and just court knowledge and awareness. We’re really pleased to have her and I know the girls are really excited to play with her.”
Sophomore Kelsey Dinkel of Norfolk, Neb., saw significant action on the outside where she piled up 175 kills and 70 digs last season. She along with other newcomers such as Paige Getz (Paola, Kan.) and Taylor Workman (Lincoln, Neb.) should be part of the equation at the outside and right side positions.
In the middle, Schamp will have help from sophomore Katie Peterson, another piece of last season’s freshmen class that was leaned heavily upon. Peterson showed what lofty play she was capable of more than ever in the late-season home loss to Hastings when she put down three out of four points on blocks to push Concordia to a second-set victory.
The Bulldog attackers will be facilitated by setters like juniors Kayla James and Jami Nekoliczak, who combined to play nearly every serve as the offense’s igniters. Nekoliczak dished out 577 assists while James came up with 478. They will see competition from Lincoln product and freshman Alayna Kavanaugh of Lincoln Christian High School.
All this newfound depth means Smith and company plan to raise the bar in 2013.
“I think we are definitely capable of really pushing our play to a whole other level this year with Coach Mattera,” Smith said. “I already saw the difference we made in spring season and I know this summer we are all pushing ourselves because we each know individually that we are going to be making an impact this year with our skill that we have and the new skill coming in.”
Mattera also sees things coming together nicely for a squad that appears headed for a rise up the GPAC. The returners will be more comfortable in Mattera’s second season and the newcomers bring added quickness and athleticism.
“We did a lot of really good things last fall in terms of pushing teams to the limit that may have been a little bit more talented or higher ranked than us,” Mattera said. “We never got over the hump, though. We never pulled off that big upset that everybody saw was possible, but was always going to be difficult. This spring, though, you could see a real difference in the grasp, especially of the defensive system.”
Bulldog volleyball rings in the new season with the Montreat College Volley in the Mountains on Friday and Saturday. Concordia will play at 9 a.m. ET versus Northwood (Fla.) on Friday to get the 2013 campaign underway.
Coaching staff additions: Mattera will have a larger staff this season with the additions of graduate assistant coach Natalie Nieman and former Concordia head coach Rachel Miller, a member of the school’s athletics hall of fame. Alex Szalawiga, the team’s grad assistant the past two seasons, will remain on staff after taking a full-time admissions counselor position at Concordia. Says Mattera, “I can’t begin to explain to you how excited I am to have a complete staff like this.”