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'Burt' bursts onto scene in big way after learning, growing into role

By Jacob Knabel on Sep. 22, 2022 in Volleyball

They say that good things come to those who wait. A degree of patience has certainly been required for Concordia senior setter Bree Burtwistle, who is now finding stardom in 2022. The secret’s out on the Stanton, Neb., native, who on Tuesday was named the NAIA National Setter of the Week. It could be argued that Burtwistle’s seamless transition into the role as primary setter has as much to do with the team’s 13-1 record as any other factor.

The importance of ‘Burt’ to this team and program has not been lost on Head Coach Ben Boldt. The Bulldogs would not be able to boast one of the nation’s most potent attacks without the precision passing of No. 3.

“That experience last year put her in a position where people trusted her and knew what she was capable of,” Boldt said. “I go back to how she’s been ever since she’s gotten here. She has put in the work. People knew what she could bring to the table. She’s done a really good job of being consistent. She’s always doing what we call ‘bettering the ball’ on that second contact and putting our hitters in good situations. Burt does it at a really high level.”

The finest hour for Burtwistle is likely yet to come, but her performance in the stunningly dominant straight sets win over No. 13 College of Saint Mary on Sept. 17 was something to behold. She delivered 42 assists as the eighth-ranked Bulldogs hit .380 and vanquished the previously unbeaten Flames. On the season, Burtwistle ranks third among all NAIA setters for assists per set (11.12) and leads an offensive powerhouse that resides within the top five nationally in the categories of hitting percentage and kills per set.

Burtwistle’s emergence came at just the perfect time with former five-year starting setter Tara Callahan having exhausted her eligibility. It’s a testament to Burtwistle’s resolve and character that she made herself an asset to the program all while biding her time and preparing for this moment. Following a 2019 season spent sharing the setter role with All-American Hope Leimbach at Midland, Burtwistle made a difficult decision to transfer.

Concordia rose to the top after she considered a couple of other in-state options. Says Burtwistle of choosing the Bulldogs, “Right away everyone was super welcoming. I’m a biology major so the science department was really important. I loved all the professors and people that I talked to. All of my teammates that were in biology and the exercise science field loved it. I liked how everything worked and how everything was hands on. Education was No. 1 and behind that is volleyball. I really liked my teammates. It just felt like another home. I felt connected immediately to them.”

Because she transferred within the same conference, Burtwistle was forced to sit out during the awkward COVID-19 ravaged fall of 2020. Burtwistle made on-court appearances in the spring of 2021 and then saw increased playing time in the fall of 2021 when Callahan played out her fifth season of collegiate volleyball. Burtwistle could have sulked about her role, but she had a feeling that her time was coming.

There was a culture cultivated by Ben and Angie Boldt that had put Burtwistle at ease. Still, one could only imagine what thoughts Burtwistle could have been thinking. She looked at her former teammate in Leimbach and saw someone who had become a rockstar on the GPAC and NAIA national landscapes and then looked at her current teammate in Callahan, one of the best setters in Bulldog history, who had a firmly established role at Concordia. Burtwistle didn’t get bitter – she got better.

Admits Burtwistle, “It was something very frustrating at first, but I just trusted the process and trusted Ben and Angie. That’s all I could do. I was accepting my role. I embraced where I was at, learned, got better and here I am.” Added Ben Boldt, “She took that all in stride. She knew what the situation was and never once complained. She’s worked really hard since day one.”

Let it be a lesson for those going through similar situations. Burtwistle learned from Leimback, she learned from Callahan and she learned from the Boldts. There were mental notes being taken. Burtwistle has the perspective now to understand how all these moments and experiences have built her up and readied her to step into the spotlight.

Recalls Burtwistle, “I knew transferring from GPAC to GPAC I would have to sit out a year no matter what. Having that year to learn from Ben and Angie and Tara was really good for me. I got to see a different perspective, learn their system and just adapt to the new environment.”

There’s also a deep respect for Leimbach, despite her starring for perhaps Concordia’s biggest rival. “Hope is a really good setter and a really good person,” Burtwistle said. “She definitely sets up her hitters in the best situations. She’s very competitive. She’s always going to want to go out there and win. That’s something I admired about her when I was at Midland.”

There’s a reason why Concordia coaches and players were so confident in the 2022 outlook at the setter position. Burtwistle and Bree Green had both become plenty comfortable within the program and in relation to the teammates they would be passing to this fall. The program’s most prominent player, outside hitter Camryn Opfer, provided glowing remarks in regard to Burtwistle’s play in the preseason. Opfer called the transition “smooth.” Meanwhile, Ben Boldt referred to Burtwistle as being like another coach on the court.

In the minds of coaches and players that get to observe Burtwistle practice every day, they see her high-level play this season as completely unsurprising. Said middle Gabi Nordaker after the win over CSM, “She’s done a great job. We take a lot of time to work on that setter-hitter connection. I think she’s been great, and she’s very vocal.”

Burtwistle’s success is a byproduct of the values that the Concordia Volleyball program lives out on a daily basis. Burwistle shares the level-headedness that permeates the entire roster. You won’t get her to talk about the team’s won-loss record or about any other match other than the next one on the schedule. Believe Burtwistle when she says, “We’re really into the day-by-day process. We can’t look too far ahead into the future.”

It sounds boring, but that’s what has made the Bulldogs one of the top 10 programs in all of NAIA volleyball over the past few years. The physical talent Concordia possesses is significant, but it’s about more than that. The way Burtwistle defines a successful team has been altered and reconfigured in her time as a Bulldog.

“We go into every match believing we can beat someone,” Burtwistle said. “From a culture perspective, we’ve grown as a team. Doc (Larry) Widman has helped us a lot in terms of becoming more in tune with each other. That translates on and off the court. I live with six other volleyball girls. We’re with each other all the time. Being able to be that connected has translated on the court with how much we trust each other.”

That word ‘trust’ just keeps coming up when Burtwistle talks about this team. That feeling is mutual in the way teammates view Burtwistle, who accumulated more than 2,000 assists and 1,000 kills in her fine high school career. For the Bulldogs, Burtwistle is a leader who empowers her teammates to ‘be the woman’ in quite visual fashion. All those thunderous kills are orchestrated by Burtwistle, who makes the position appear as a form of art in the way that a maestro inspires beautiful music.

God willing, Burtwistle just might bless the Bulldogs with her presence for another season in 2023. Her future may also include PA school, but those decisions can wait. She’s taking it “day-by-day” while living in the moment.

There’s no reason not to soak up everything that’s happening right now. The present is too much fun. This was worth the wait. Said Burtwistle, “We’ve grown into a family of people we can trust. All of my teammates will be my best friends for life. That’s something that is very important.”