There was something bittersweet about Sarah Ragland’s trip south to the 2022 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships. As Sarah spun around and let go of her sixth attempt at the hammer throw on that day (May 25, 2022), her father John and older sister Johanna, and many other members of the family, peered into the overcast skies in Gulf Shores, Ala. The thud of the implement colliding with the ground signaled the end of an era for the Ragland family.
Three years after Johanna had concluded her Concordia athletic career, the sand in the hourglass had finished flowing on Sarah’s five-year journey as a Bulldog. Sarah took to the All-America podium with a fourth-place claim, marking the third All-America award of her throwing career – and the 10th combined for the accomplished Raglands, each Concordia alums.
Is that the end for Raglands at Concordia? Time will tell. Reflected John, “This past year when I was at the indoor conference meet, it finally started hitting me – I’m not going to get to be around these people anymore. That is kind of a sad thing.”
Sure there’s a degree of sadness associated with the end of the competitive collegiate exploits for Johanna and Sarah, but there will be only positive memories that come rushing back in the years to come. The Ragland-Concordia connection began in 1986 when John enrolled at Concordia, a place that had been previously unfamiliar to the family. Thirty-six years later, John has watched as two daughters have come through his alma mater, prepared to enhance the Lutheran educational system, just as John has done in his professional career.
As Bulldog throws coach Ed McLaughlin will tell you, “The family’s just amazing.” It’s a family that, over the years Johanna and Sarah have lived, has moved from Las Vegas to Racine, Wis., to Rockford, Ill., and to the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where John and his wife Ramona continue to settle. Sarah says that after the numerous relocations, Cleveland ultimately came to feel like home.
But Concordia was never forgotten. Whenever John took the family back out west to return to his hometown of Grand Island, Neb., the Raglands wouldn’t miss an opportunity to slip into Seward and visit the campus that brought back moments of nostalgia for John. The family even once planned a vacation to Nebraska at a time when it knew Johanna (then in seventh grade) could attend a Concordia throwing camp directed by McLaughlin. Those visits were always a highlight for Johanna, Sarah and younger brother Nolan. A bond with McLaughlin was just beginning to take shape.
Years earlier when McLaughlin was still a student-athlete at Concordia, John and Ed shared a memorable conversation at a gas station south of town in Seward. McLaughlin worked at the gas station where John happened to stop in. An exchange began when John noticed that McLaughlin was wearing a Concordia Track & Field t-shirt. John introduced himself. Ed Knew the name. Not lacking confidence, he replied, “I’m Ed McLaughlin. I’m the guy who’s going to break your records.” The two still share a laugh today about that encounter. As it turned out, McLaughlin would have to wait until becoming a coach to see Ragland’s school shot put records fall.
Naturally, John’s experience at Concordia, and the visits Johanna and Sarah enjoyed to campus, made the Bulldogs an attractive option by the time college drew nearer for the sisters. Despite the driving distance of nearly 900 miles between the campuses of Concordia and Lutheran West High School in Rocky River, Ohio, Johanna and Sarah could feel the pull of all that Concordia had to offer. As the eldest sibling, Johanna was up first. The fit appeared perfect considering Johanna’s aspirations.
Recalled John, “We thought she should look around so we had her visit Concordia Ann Arbor, Concordia Wisconsin, Concordia St. Paul and Concordia Chicago. I remember after almost every visit, she would be like, this was good and this was good, but this is why I still want to go to Concordia Nebraska. For her, that was great because she was able to make that decision after seeing all those schools. So then Sarah didn’t visit any of the other Concordias. She had done other college visits with a program she was in at Lutheran West and she had decided she wanted to follow Johanna and go to Concordia.”
Johanna says that the camp she attended at Concordia in seventh grade left a lasting impression upon her. Said Johanna, “If it wasn’t for my dad introducing me to Concordia and taking me to camps there I never would have even thought to go there.”
In the eyes of McLaughlin, Johanna was not necessarily a lock to end up in Seward. He remembered there being times when some doubt crept in as to what college she might choose. John left it up to Johanna to make the call. Several decades before, a junior high-aged version of John visited Concordia with his Trinity Lutheran School classmates for an event called, “Gathering of the Talents.” At that moment, John felt like he knew where he was supposed to go to college. A few years later, he was recruited by then Concordia head coaches Larry Oetting (football) and John Knight (track & field) and everything fell into place.
Said McLaughlin of the recruiting of Johanna and Sarah, “Ever since I met Sarah, it always felt like she was going to Concordia. With Jo, there was a little more uncertainty. If Jo had decided to go somewhere else, who knows what Sarah decides to do. All three of us have joked how it was a much different recruiting process for the two of them.” (The third sibling, Nolan, chose to attend Rochester University in New York and pursue engineering).
Added Sarah, “I think in the back of my mind I knew I was always going to go to Concordia. I really didn’t look at anywhere else. I always knew that was going to be the case. It was nice having my sister there. Even though it was really far from home, and I didn’t know anyone else, my sister was there. I really didn’t consider anywhere else.”
The bond grew between Johanna and Sarah, who blossomed while being coached by McLaughlin. The two sisters went on to collect a combined seven All-America awards while helping bring about the reign of Concordia Women’s Track & Field atop the GPAC. Johanna and Sarah were teammates for the 2018 and 2019 indoor/outdoor track seasons. Said Johanna, “My sister is still one of my best friends. I was so excited that we were going to get to be on the same team again. I loved getting to compete with her. We were always pushing each other to do better and encouraging each other.”
John surely beamed with pride in seeing his daughters don shirts with the name “Concordia” on it. The presence of Johanna and Sarah at Concordia gave John the opportunity to immerse himself within the campus and the community once again. After all the years since John (three-time track All-American and football captain) had competed and studied at Concordia, he was pleased to know that the pillars of what had made him so proud to be a Bulldog still stood strong in the present day.
As John put it, “Concordia is not about the buildings, it’s not about the brick and mortar. It’s really about the people who are at the school, it’s about the focus Concordia has and it’s about the Christian spiritual aspect of the campus. That’s what I liked about Concordia when I went there at the time. When I go back and visit, none of those things have ever changed. It was exactly what I hoped it would still be, even though they have these fantastic facilities now that we never could have dreamed of.”
When it comes from John Ragland, that means something. We’re talking about a guy who has been to a lot of places – and seemingly knows everyone. Said McLaughlin, “The fun thing between me, Sarah and Jo is how many people know their dad. We’re talking about the Lutheran school system, which is not a small group of people. You can’t go anywhere and not find someone who knows John Ragland. It’s impressive.”
The Ragland name has certainly become a familiar one at Concordia, a place where John, Johanna and Sarah have all thrived. The Ragland-CUNE relationship has been mutually beneficial. Sarah glows when talking about the impact of the professors she’s had and what Coach McLaughlin has meant to her. Said Sarah, “He truly has become like family and someone I feel like I can go to for anything.”
It’s not easy to sum up exactly what Concordia has meant to the Raglands, but Johanna and Sarah gave it a try. They know their Concordia experiences will continue to impact them as Lutheran educators and coaches.
Said Johanna, “I am so proud of the little legacy that the Ragland family has left at Concordia. I look back so fondly on my time at Concordia. I loved doing track there. I learned so much through that experience. I made friends that I know will last a lifetime while I was at Concordia. I know my dad and sister would say the same thing. Concordia holds a special place in our hearts. I know we are so grateful that we all had that experience.”
Added Sarah, “It’s really cool to be part of that legacy. Prior to my dad going there, there wasn’t really any connection to Concordia Nebraska. Now all of a sudden, we have so many connections. Being able to go to where he went and learn about how it was back then versus how it is now and having graduated, hopefully I can give back to that program in some way. One of my goals is for some of my athletes to go there some day, if not my future children. I want to send some of my future athletes to Ed. I think that would be so cool. Concordia has given me so much so I hope I can give back in some small way in the future.”
A third generation of Ragland All-Americans?! Don’t rule it out. Joked John, “Johanna’s son Finn just turned one so maybe in 17 years we’ll be back.”
No matter the physical distance between campus and members of the family, the Ragland-Concordia connection will remain a special one.