These are the moments that Bree Burtwistle and Camryn Opfer came back to experience. For Burtwistle, Opfer and the seniors set to complete their Concordia careers in 2023-24, the upcoming excursion will serve as one last hurrah in Sioux City, Iowa, final site of the national tournament. It’s the place that signals the end of each season’s journey, win or lose. Whatever the end result, emotions will run high for a group of Bulldogs who have been instrumental in the most successful period in the history of Concordia Volleyball.
The class of fourth-year seniors includes active postseason rostered players in Sara Huss, Lexie Kreizel, Maddy Nagel, Gabi Nordaker, Carly Rodaway and Addison Smith, in addition to Ashtynne Frahm and Shelby Stark. Going back to an unorthodox 2020 season, the group has known nothing other than making trips to the Tyson Events Center.
In the aftermath of the NAIA opening round win that marked the final home match of her career, Huss attempted to put the past four years into perspective. Said Huss, “It’s kind of a surreal feeling. These girls and this place will always have a special place in my heart for all the memories and fun times we’ve had – the trip to Oregon, the trips to nationals and everything in between. It’s not always about the volleyball but also about the other memories you make along the way. This place is truly special, and I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Concordia is like no other.”
In the “Jordan Year” of 2023, the Bulldogs have made more memories while starting this season at 17-0, rising to No. 1 in the NAIA coaches’ poll and eventually sharing the GPAC regular season championship. In celebration of the team’s historic No. 1 ranking, current players sent text messages to former Bulldogs, letting them know they were part of this too. The success being enjoyed today by the current seniors has been years in the making and a byproduct of how Ben and Angie Boldt have built this program.
There were hugs to go around on Halloween night when Concordia claimed a piece of the conference regular season championship with a win at Midland. This achievement had been a standing goal for the program. When talking about her decision to return for a fifth year of college volleyball in 2023, the GPAC Setter of the Year Burtwistle wasn’t shy in saying, “We still want to get that GPAC and natty champ.”
Neither Burtwistle nor Opfer felt good about going out with a loss in pool play at the 2022 national tournament. They didn’t necessarily need any extra motivation, but they found it in that moment. The Seward High School product Opfer’s experience on the national stage goes all the way back to 2019 when she helped the program win at the national tournament for the first time ever. Opfer fueled the Bulldogs to the national round of 16 in 2019 and then to the national quarterfinals in both 2020 and 2021 during seasons impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opfer owns program records at the national tournament for all-time kills (206) and digs (243) and was named to the National Championship All-Tournament Team in both 2020 and 2021. There won’t be anything that will happen over the next week that will phase the unflappable Opfer. In that momentous win at Midland, Opfer never let her side crumble under pressure. Said Opfer, “In the huddle, I was like, ‘Bree, I can feel this. Just breathe. We got this.’ I think it’s a testament to all of us believing, never giving up and having the ultimate trust in each other.”
As Ben Boldt added, “Level up – that’s been our theme all year long. Our team has been so connected all the way through. We just never wavered in each other. This is something that we’ve wanted. You’re not going to base success solely on whether you hit your goals or not, but do you connect with each other? Do you believe in each other? Do you give every ounce of your effort? That’s what our core values are all about.”
For those core values to truly play out in everyday life and on the court, the upperclassmen have to be the ones who set the tone. The seniors have embodied those core values (love, trust, hard work and sacrifice) while accepting their roles on the team. The Fairbury, Neb., native Huss always seems to come through when called upon as a middle blocker. She ended the Halloween victory at Midland with a block and then a kill for match point. With freshman middle blocker Maddie Paulsen sidelined, Huss posted five kills and four blocks in the opening round win over Judson.
The Boldts have made it known to Huss and others that they all have a hand in the team’s success. Said Huss, “It can be a really tough role (coming off the bench). I’m really glad they’ve trusted me to have the game-changer role. It isn’t easy, but they have trust in me and my teammates trust me to go make the big plays in the big moments. I’m really grateful for that. I know Ava (Greene) is doing a great job. She’s been working really hard in the practice gym. I’m really happy I have people who push me to be ready for this role.”
National tournaments are also nothing new for the All-American Nordaker and the two-time All-GPAC selection Rodaway. Both have enjoyed their share of highlights on the national stage. While Opfer took the headlines in the 2021 upset of No. 2 Viterbo (with a spot in the national quarterfinals on the line), Rodaway stung the opposition with 17 kills. In one of her better nationals performances, Nordaker tallied 15 kills and seven blocks in the four-set win over Oregon Tech in 2021.
This won’t be the end for Nordaker, who has already announced that she will use her ‘COVID year’ of eligibility and return in 2024. Said Nordaker of that decision, “I am very sad that this is my last year with the classmates I’ve grown up with. That’s been a little rough, but I’m very fortunate that I get another year with this great, amazing team.”
The special nature of this team isn’t boiled down to sheer statistics. Take for example Addison Smith, the team’s NAIA Champions of Character representative and a 4.0 student. If/when called upon in Sioux City, Smith and the other seniors will surely seize the opportunity. These are people who are wired to strive for great heights on the court and in life. They have built something that will stand the test of time.
Said Opfer following the win at Midland, “I just love playing with this team and I think the fight and the will to win with this team is unmatched. I’m just so proud for the coaches especially. I’ve been with them for five years now and they’ve wanted this so bad. I’m just happy to do it for my teammates and coaches.”
Whether it comes down to national tournament glory or agony, Burtwistle and Opfer will go down as Concordia Volleyball legends, a sentiment they have likely paid no mind. On senior day 2022, the following thoughts were provided by the Boldts about the pair of Bulldogs, then unsure of what the fall of 2023 would bring.
On Burtwistle: “Bree, or better known as Burt on the team, is described by her teammates as unshakeable. She’ll be remembered for her admirable work ethic, hair braiding skills and wacky toe trick.”
On Opfer: “Camryn is described by her teammates as calm, cool and collected. She is one of the most humble people you will meet, makes people laugh and is the queen of the limbo.”
Future plans for the fifth-year and senior Bulldogs are as follows:
· Bree Burtwistle – Become a physician assistant.
· Ashtynne Frahm – Pursue MBA.
· Sara Huss – Attend nursing school at UNMC.
· Lexie Kreizel – Teach elementary/early childhood education.
· Maddy Nagel – Teach special education.
· Gabi Nordaker – Return for a fifth year of volleyball.
· Camryn Opfer – Become a certified public accountant.
· Carly Rodaway – Teach PE and pursue masters in Administration.
· Addison Smith – Teach middle school math.
· Shelby Stark – Pursue a masters in Speech-Language Pathology.
Here’s to one last run at a title for this group of departing Bulldogs. This is what they’ve worked for since January when offseason workouts began in earnest. The Tyson Events Center in Sioux City awaits their arrival. Said Huss, “It just gives me chills. That’s the biggest stage of NAIA volleyball and I can’t wait to take it on with my team one last time.”