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Faith, family, elite competition fuel women's track dominance

By Jacob Knabel on Feb. 26, 2021 in Track & Field

The run that the Concordia University Women’s Track and Field program has put together does not happen by accident. The Bulldogs reached the pinnacle in 2016 when they raised the NAIA outdoor national championship banner, but never before have they been so thoroughly dominant in comparison to their conference rivals. Last week Head Coach Matt Beisel’s program celebrated a women’s conference title for the fourth-straight GPAC meet.

A group of five Bulldogs was asked to explain the special nature of the atmosphere that has helped foster an unprecedented run for women’s track and field. The current juniors and seniors have had in hand in half of the program’s eight all-time conference championships.

A 2020 NAIA national champion, Rachel Battershell has thrived as a leader at Concordia. Says Battershell, “Being able to pray, laugh and be challenged together has been 'iron sharpening iron' in action. Between our event groups, each day I see teammates encouraging one another. In an environment like this, how can you not grow? When someone has a bad day, we have so many leaders who can step in, ensuring that the training itself maintains quality. Having a wide variety of leadership styles in our team dynamic has helped us to continue to grow despite ever-changing challenges like the pandemic. Additionally, we are blessed with coaches and trainers who truly care about us. I am truly thankful for them and for my teammates, as without them I wouldn't be where I am today.”

Battershell’s teammates expressed thoughts that followed a similar theme. Winning has simply been a byproduct of a program characterized by faith, family and healthy competition within all event groups. As shown by the data at the bottom, Concordia has actually distanced itself further from the rest of the GPAC in 2021. The 217 points accumulated at the 2021 conference indoor meet represented a team high during the streak of GPAC titles. Beisel and his staff have not had to sweat the outcome of any of those meets as they entered the stretch run.

Beisel and his staff of Mark Samuels, Ed McLaughlin, Ben Hinckfoot, Jason Berry and graduate assistants and volunteer coaches (and previous assistant Wayne Earney) have worked to make the program one featuring incredible balance. Of course the throws group remains strong while Concordia has also routinely ranked near the top of the nation in a multitude of other events. In the women’s pole vault, an excellent tradition is currently being carried on by Josie Puelz.

Says Puelz, “It is an honor for me to rep Bulldog blue. The impressive tradition of women’s pole vault at Concordia constantly fuels my hunger to improve. However, it also drives me to fire up those around me to rise to a new level of competition and intensity. I am so excited for where our team is headed and for all of the potential that we still have yet to discover within each of our vaulters.”

If not for the cancellation of the 2020 outdoor season, Concordia may have put another piece of hardware in the trophy case. As it stands, the Bulldogs have made lasting GPAC championship memories while experiencing victory laps in Seward, Yankton, Mitchell and Sioux Center, the site of the last four conference meets. Those are the glorious days that are seen by the public eye, but there’s so much more to it.

A junior from Trimont, Minn., Cora Olson put forth the team’s highest point total from one individual. She knows what goes into a special performance. Said Olson, “This is a team with drive and a passion to succeed, bolstered and moved by faith, motivated by the support of each other, coaches and an incredibly devoted fan base. A win doesn't just happen – there are so many behind the scene components that really come into play, and we push and capitalize. After a time, with good competition, it all comes down to who wants it more and can gut it out to do what needs to be done, and we do that.”

Some additional thoughts from the Bulldogs:

Battershell: “This conference meet definitely felt different than previous years. Perhaps it was because it was the largest meet of the season thus far, but the energy in the fieldhouse was electric. It was so fun to be in that environment again since COVID, and being able to celebrate the championship on top of it all was awesome. Having the perspective of not taking competition or even training with teammates for granted definitely changed what this season and the conference meet meant for each of us. The opportunity itself was viewed even more as a blessing and an opportunity to glorify God, a sentiment which was vocalized many times by many teammates throughout the weekend. When a team has that mindset, any result is still worth celebrating, learning from, and thanking God for. Taking home the banner we brought served as an extra reminder of the relentless drive our team has, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic. Seeing the joy of competing on my teammates faces inspired and brought me joy, which made the meet even more special. As we move to Nationals and then outdoor season, I'll say the same thing I've said since freshman year: Proud no matter what.”

Morgan De Jong: “I would say that this team is so special to be a part of because of the overall family dynamic, especially on the throws side of things. We are all so supportive but still push each other, which is pretty cool. There is so much talent on this team and it is fun and such an honor to be a part of.  Winning the weight throw (GPAC title) really was a thrill and I am beyond happy about it, but it’s really not about me. I just do my best to honor God and help this team as best I can. I am just so grateful to be competing again and am excited for the rest of the season as well. All glory to God.”

Kylahn Heritage: “What makes the Concordia Bulldogs a special team is the Christ-centered community and the camaraderie that comes with every loss and victory. I love how on and off the track (inside and outside of practice) the girls on the team are very supportive of what goes on in each other’s lives, and it is all deeply rooted in how much we care for one another no matter what. As a teammate, I love being there to help my teammates and I appreciate that they’ve got my back too whenever I need help. It also eases my mind every time we pray together before a race, reminding that the first reason I run is to run for God and show good sportsmanship as a Christian athlete.

What was most memorable (about the GPAC meet) to me was at the end of the meet when we all lined up around the track to cheer on the 4x400m relay because it was tremendous to see how supportive every team was. The adrenaline and nerves were accompanied with joy, excitement, and relief to see how much Concordia as a whole gets behind their teammates to support them at the end of the day, even after we were tired from competing.”

Olson: “There is a community on this team and we can't win by ourselves. We need each other. Within that we push each other to be the best we can for ourselves and our teams. There's no one of us that can win by ourselves and while we push to see what we can do individually, at GPAC we push for the team.”

Puelz: “Having a Christ-centered focus across the board has made being part of this team an indescribable blessing. There is a unique comradery and sense of community that comes along with faith being the foundation of all that we do. Something that stems from this is the reassurance of knowing that everything we do in competition is not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God through the talents and abilities He has given us. Because of this, each member of our team does a phenomenal job of stepping up to the plate and rising to the challenge each time we enter competition.”

Recapping four-straight titles

2021 Indoor
Team points: 217 (second place: 137)
Event champions: Rachel Battershell (400 meters); Morgan De Jong (weight throw); Kylahn Heritage (1,000 meters).
Host: Dordt


2020 Indoor
Team points: 193 (second place: 113.5)
Event champions: 4x400m relay; Rachel Battershell (60 hurdles; 400 meters); Kylahn Heritage (3,000 meters); Kennedy Mogul (pentathlon); Josie Puelz (pole vault); Addie Shaw (weight throw).
Host: Dakota Wesleyan


2019 Outdoor
Team points: 200 (second place: 149.5)
Event champions: Rachel Battershell (400 meters); Samantha Liermann (shot put); Erin Mapson (pole vault); Addie Shaw (discus).
Host: Mount Marty


2019 Indoor
Team points: 173.5 (second place: 135.5)
Event champions: 4x400m relay; Allie Brooks (pole vault); Taylor Grove (3,000 meters).
Host: Concordia