This was the moment the Concordia University Volleyball program had been building towards. It had struggled to claim that signature victory during a solid 2014 campaign, but the Bulldogs broke through in a big way a year later. On October 14, 2015, Concordia raised eyebrows and announced itself as a serious GPAC championship contender.
On that date, the Bulldogs ventured to the Wikert Event Center in Fremont, Neb., with an overall record of 19-5 and a national ranking of 17th. On the other side of the net, the powerhouse Midland program stood at 22-0 and was ranked No. 2 in the NAIA. Concordia’s program had not beaten a top-10 ranked team since 2007 and was certainly a rather large underdog.
Then Head Coach Scott Mattera’s squad would depart from Fremont that Wednesday evening with arguably the most significant win in program history at the time. Down two-sets-to-one, the Bulldogs rallied back and stunned the Warriors, a squad with national title aspirations.
Five years later, Alayna Kavanaugh, a junior setter on the ’15 team, attempted to recall the most striking moments from that particular night. Said the standout athlete turned nurse in the neuro/trauma intensive care unit at Bryan West, “I remember being down, but we weren’t done. We were all really optimistic and you could just feel the energy among us that we weren’t going to lose.”
By 2015, the Bulldogs had assembled a veteran squad built mainly around Kavanaugh and her classmates who arrived in the fall of 2013. A Lincoln native, Kavanaugh was joined in that recruiting class by Paige Getz (Paola, Kan.), Tiegen Skains (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and Taylor Workman (Lincoln). A transfer from Washburn University, Claire White (Exeter, Neb.) also starred along with a couple of talented sophomores in Annie Friesen (Wichita, Kan.) and Jocelyn Garcia (Brighton, Colo.). A group of seniors (Kelsey Dinkel, Kendra Dinkel, Katie Peterson and Libby Zagel) also played roles.
The familiarity on the court factored into the success enjoyed that season. “I think it was definitely the fact that we all played with each other for a while and were comfortable together,” Kavanaugh said. “We meshed well. We knew we were semi-underdogs but we knew we could change that. We also just had fun together.”
The aforementioned players were the backbone of a team that would finish at 26-9 and claim the program’s first-ever bid to the NAIA National Tournament. Both Garcia and Kavanaugh would wind up being named NAIA honorable mention All-America selections (White received that distinction in 2014). However, in mid-October of 2015, a spot at nationals had not yet been guaranteed.
The tussle between Concordia and Midland proved to be a typical GPAC grinder. Both squads barely hit above .100 for the match. The major difference for the Bulldogs was a 23-12 advantage in blocking. Said Mattera at the time, “I'm so proud of these girls. For us to beat the No. 2 team in the country by out-blocking them and defending like crazy is simply amazing.”
The exhilarating victory came 18 days after Concordia knocked off No. 11 Northwestern on the road in similar fashion. In a déjà vu moment, Skains completed the upset at Midland with a game-clinching kill from the right side just as she did in Orange City. In near disbelief, White crumpled to the floor, then quickly rose up to join her bear-hugging Bulldog teammates near center court.
In hindsight, there was likely more pressure felt by Midland as it tried to carry on its unbeaten run. As Kavanaugh recalls, “We had nothing to lose.” She continued, “I just remember feeling very little pressure to win, but to show up and play as best as we could.”
Fittingly, Concordia’s defensive effort led the charge in the fifth set. The Bulldogs finished with a season best block total behind their middles in Friesen (three block solos, nine assists) and Workman (one block solo, nine assists). Concordia denied four Warrior attacks in the fifth set and held them to a negative hitting percentage (.105 overall on the night). The Bulldogs had also faced adversity in the fourth set when it let a 14-7 lead slip away. Midland rallied for an 18-16 advantage before Concordia came back to lead, 21-18. It took the nail-biting fourth set, 25-23.
Friesen notched 11 kills and Getz added 10. Kavanaugh dished out 43 assists. Garcia had 23 digs and White 21. There were only five combined service aces in a well-played defensive white-knuckler.
Any win at Midland is a big win. The Warriors went on to reach the national quarterfinals in 2015 before advancing to the national semifinals in 2016. They are known for having a difficult venue to play at. There were a reported 1,908 fans in attendance when Concordia rallied to beat second-ranked Midland, 25-23, 19-25, 14-25, 25-23, 15-11, in 2015. The Warriors boasted such stars as Ashlee Harms, KC Heimann, Priscilla O’Dowd and Jessica Peters – all first team All-GPAC selections.
All those stars weren’t quite enough on that night. The Bulldogs needed these types of moments to know they had truly gotten over the hump. The program had suddenly ended a 12-match losing streak in its series against the Warriors. With that victory, Concordia vaulted into the top 15 of the NAIA rankings for the first time since 2000. It ended the 2015 season at No. 22 after it lost to Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) in the opening round of the national tournament.
On any given day, the ’15 Bulldogs were capable of taking down just about any foe, even second-ranked Midland in hostile territory. Said Getz towards the end of that campaign, “This has been one of the most fun seasons just because we know we can beat anybody.”
Added Kavanaugh, “I find myself reminiscing fairly often. We made some good memories and good friends during that time. I can definitely say those four years helped me grow as a person.”