The making of a national tournament volleyball team at Concordia did not happen overnight. The core of the first Bulldog squad ever to break through and reach the national tournament all arrived in the last two to four years, brought in by head coach Scott Mattera as part of a vision to bring the program back to glory.
The impressive collection of talent has helped Concordia leap from 11 wins in 2012 to 26 victories in 2015.
“It’s been amazing,” said junior setter Alayna Kavanaugh. “I’ve enjoyed seeing where we started and where we are now. It’s taken a lot of hard work. Looking back for a second and seeing where we were freshman year, we’ve come a long ways.”
With an entertaining and balanced approach, Kavanaugh and the Bulldogs advanced to the 2015 GPAC title match, marking another first in program history. Along the way they defeated six nationally-ranked teams behind their loaded arsenal that includes five players with more than 200 kills. One of the nation’s most powerful and crowd-pleasing attacks has led Concordia to unprecedented success.
“This is an awesome accomplishment – first time in program history,” Mattera said. “That history goes back 40 years so that’s a really cool thing to be able to do. Just as big as making it (to nationals) is we get to host a first-round match. At this point, this is gravy. We’re going to work our tails off and see how good we can be. There’s nothing to lose at this point.”
Dreams of reaching the national stage became reality on the morning of Nov. 16. A large portion of the team gathered in the Walz athletic building to watch the NAIA national tournament selection show. Plenty of tension and nervousness clouded the room with Concordia sitting squarely on the bubble. Those emotions turned into jubilation as the Bulldog logo appeared on screen.
Seniors Kendra Dinkel and Libby Zagel hugged. Kavanaugh knocked over her water bottle. Graduate assistant coach Amanda Abbott pounded her hands on the table repeatedly. Jocelyn Garcia yelped, “We get to host?!”
Days earlier, sophomore Annie Friesen called a national tournament bid “a dream come true.” Senior Claire White knew her team was capable, saying “There’s no better time to do it. We’re going to do it. Obviously this is my last chance.”
The likes of Kavanaugh, Friesen, Garcia, Paige Getz, Tiegen Skains, White and Taylor Workman serve as the nucleus of a roster built upon players who had to believe in a vision and see past recent program struggles during their recruitment. Of course, the spirit of Concordia athletics is not simply about winning on the court.
Mattera and many players attribute the rise of the program to the atmosphere of positivity that has been fostered. Team chemistry has been built through an environment that encourages the Bulldogs to be loose and play for each other. The results are a product of the process.
That’s not to say everything about this season has been perfect. A late regular-season home loss at the hands of Doane appeared to put the team’s at-large national tournament hopes in jeopardy. But it would have been incredibly difficult not to smile two days later as Friesen mimicked the Napoleon Dynamite dance in front of her teammates. It was part of an on-campus costume-themed team get-together on the eve of Halloween.
“It’s funny, I didn’t talk to anyone like the first week here,” Friesen said. “They found out I was weird and crazy and they were OK with it. So it’s good.”
It’s this type of dynamic that lessened the worry of chemistry problems that could have resulted from the prevalence of big-time hitters. Mattera brought in players that were used to being go-to options for their high school and club teams. Now there are times when they must wait their turn for a quick-witted Kavanaugh set to come their way.
“It’s different,” Getz said. “It’s been hard to adjust coming from high school and getting all the sets. I like it because I know that I have other hitters behind my back that can put the ball down just as hard as I can.”
Added Kavanaugh, “It’s crazy because each one of our hitters I trust and know they can put the ball away. There’s no problem with setting it to them and not taking care of the ball. It’s awesome because a lot of teams just have one or two go-to hitters. All of ours are go-to hitters.”
Hard-hitting and fun-loving best describe this bunch of Bulldogs, who have appeared in the NAIA national rankings for a program GPAC-era record nine-straight polls.
This year’s journey to the tourney has taken Concordia from the Windy City to around the GPAC footprint and potentially to Sioux City, Iowa, where the final 24 national tournament teams left standing will converge. No matter where it ends, it’s an expedition that will be remembered by the program record books but, more importantly, by the people who experienced it.
From the Friesen in-game dances and rock-star salutes to the White fist pumps to the Diane Kavanaugh (mother of Alayna) celebrations alongside the student body to the momentous wins, it’s been an unforgettable ride.
“It’s been so fun,” Workman said. “These girls are just awesome. It’s so fun to share this experience with them and put in hard work with them and see the results. It’s awesome.”
On Saturday, the Concordia University volleyball program will play in its first-ever national tournament match while immersed in an expected wild Walz atmosphere. It could be the just the start of something even bigger.
Said Skains, “It’s really cool to know you’re part of something like that, that’s this big. I can’t wait to see where it goes.”