It’s no coincidence that the active string of national tournament berths for the Concordia University Volleyball program began in 2019. That’s when a transcendent class of freshmen entered the program. At the time, coaches Ben and Angie Boldt were still in the process of establishing a culture and an identity that they believed would transform an outfit that had its work cut out for it within the NAIA’s toughest volleyball conference. It started with the idea that champions should act like champions before becoming champions.
As part of the first group of recruits that Ben and Angie put together, Concordia welcomed in freshmen Bree Green, Camryn Opfer, Kennedy VanScoy and Kalee Wiltfong as building blocks. They were tasked with assimilating with the group of veterans that included standouts such as Tara Callahan, Marissa Hoerman and Emmie Noyd, among others.
On the outside, little was expected of the 2019 team, which was picked eighth in the GPAC preseason coaches’ poll. Inside the Bulldog locker room, expectations were much higher. Even after the ’18 team had lost 12 of its final 15 matches, the Boldts had sold this group on a vision.
Says Wiltfong, “It’s simple. Their core values that they live on day-in and day-out were what sold me the most. I wanted to be part of a culture that values similar things I value. Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect. But Ben and Angie took us in as their own and truly showed us love, hard work, sacrifice and trust.”
It would be easy to try to tell people that those are the ideals you want your program to represent. But do you actually live them out? Concordia Volleyball has embodied what it means to foster such a family-like culture. The yields of that day-to-day focus on relationships have been impressive: a four-year record of 76-26 with three national tournament appearances (so far), including two that have resulted in advancements to the NAIA quarterfinals. Along the way, the class has also been supplemented with other talented players like Rebecca Gebhardt, Ashley Keck and Gabi Nordaker, to name a few.
The group gained another star when setter Bree Burtwistle transferred from Midland in the fall of 2020. The class also includes Mary Nibbe, who has served as a team manager (her sister Morgan Nibbe is a fifth-year senior on the team). One commonality between each classmate is their Nebraska roots. Immediate impacts were made by Opfer, the hometown Seward High School product, and Wiltfong, the Doniphan-Trumbull High School alum. It didn’t take long for Opfer and Wiltfong to become exceptionally close friends.
Says Opfer, “I used to think that when people said, your college friends will be your best friends for life, that they just had a really good college experience or that they were just saying it to make college sound exciting. I never really believed them. But these seniors are my best friends for life. Each one of them has such a good personality. I am very thankful to be a part of this senior class. One thing that stands out for me was the first time meeting Kalee Wiltfong. We met at the Seward bowling alley for a preseason team bonding event, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I think she looks pretty cool.’ Now she is one of my very best friends.”
The coming together of Concordia Volleyball was on display quickly in 2019. By late October, the Bulldogs had made a return to the national rankings while landing at No. 17. Opfer had burst onto the scene as the GPAC Freshman of the Year and Wiltfong opened eyes with her rocket launcher of a right arm. While following the lead of Callahan and Noyd, Concordia reached the final site of the national tournament, something the program had never done before.
They were just getting started. The ’20 and ’21 seasons were affected in obvious ways by COVID-19, but the culture of the program never allowed it to become an excuse. After all, everyone around the country was dealing with it. In a unique feat, the Bulldogs reached the NAIA national quarterfinals twice during the calendar year of 2021. In both national tournaments, Opfer was named to the NAIA National Championship All-Tournament Team. She scorched No. 2 Viterbo in December 2021 with 21 kills on a .514 hitting percentage from the outside. The triumph over adversity, including a rash of five-set losses early in the season, eventually led to the program’s highest ever national ranking of No. 6. Now in 2022, the Bulldogs are 14-1 and again ranked sixth nationally.
Ben Boldt never tried to prognosticate what type of success would come. He simply felt good about the people that were part of the program. Said Boldt, “It’s really hard to predict how anybody’s going to pan out in college. I knew they were good people. I think that’s a bottom line of who we want in our program. They always have put their head down and just worked. We have a saying in our gym that champions behave like champions before they become champions. I think that’s always how they’ve conducted themselves. I don’t know if I could have predicted how they would be when we first recruited them, but I knew they were good people.”
As a transfer, Burtwistle found herself jumping into the middle of a meteoric rise. Said Burtwistle, “I could tell there was a culture shift taking place when I got here. That was something I really liked. Ben and Angie really helped grow that culture. 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.”
What’s also important to the team’s success is the contributions from role players like Green and VanScoy. A Waverly High School graduate, VanScoy has been one of the team’s best and most consistent servers over her time as a Bulldog. She knows just as well as anyone how close-knit this group has become.
“From the first moment I met these girls, I have known that we were a special class,” VanScoy said. “I have never been a part of a more united class or a class that works as hard as this one. Throughout our time here, we have evolved into a great group of leaders, and I know that we will continue to lead this team towards our goals. I have been so blessed to have been given the chance to build a relationship with these girls and I will forever cherish the relationships I have built here at Concordia as my time comes to an end.”
As for Green, she’s taken advantage of more on-court opportunities this season. The Millard West High School alum has shown a team-first attitude. Her selflessness is made easier by the environment and the camaraderie shared with her fellow senior classmates.
“I think what is going to stand out the most with me from volleyball is the people and relationships I built throughout my time here,” Green said. “This is such a special program and these girls are truly my best friends. I know that is a cheesy answer, but it's the truth. Years from now I will probably not remember the volleyball as much as I remember the girls and the memories we made on bus rides, trips and locker room talks. I feel as though we are such a family here and I am blessed to have been a part of this program for the last four years.”
Added Wiltfong, “From the first time I met my other teammates in my grade, I knew they were special. Even though we’ve lost some and gained one, nothing has changed with this group. We all truly support and love each other no matter what. I think the best thing has been able to see how we all have molded into leadership roles over the years. It has been a joy to be able to lead this team together as one unit. I know that every single one of us has each other’s back.”
These thoughts are exactly what Ben and Angie Boldt would have likely imagined their players having when they first embarked on their own Concordia journeys starting in 2018. At one point in her high school career, Opfer had committed to an NCAA Division II school. When her recruitment opened back, Opfer found exactly what she was looking for, in her own backyard.
Says Opfer, “I remember my recruit visit with the coaches pretty well. You could tell by the way Ben and Angie talked about Concordia and ‘the process,’ that they really wanted to make something of this program. I believed in them from the beginning. They put in so much work behind the scenes. They are the core reason that we have had so much success these last four years.”
There have been plenty of lighthearted moments along the way. Says Ben Boldt, “Wiltfong likes to talk a lot of smack with me. She’ll always challenge me on something. She’ll be like, ‘Hey Coach, if I make this serve, you do a down-back, down-back. If I miss the serve, I’ll do a down-back, down-back. Kennedy is always challenging me on my wardrobe choices. That’s a fun thing to be around. They are great. I’m looking forward to continuing a relationship after they’re gone and seeing where they go.”
The full story is not yet written. The way things are shaping up, there could be plenty to celebrate by the time December rolls around. Until then, these seniors will continue to have a blast while living up some of their final moments as teammates.