NOTE: The following feature piece first appeared in the winter edition of Concordia University's Broadcaster magazine.
By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Sept. 24, 2014, is the date that Concordia volleyball got its groove back. A large white-out student contingent made Walz Arena quiver as the Bulldogs took out GPAC rival and 18th-ranked Hastings in a thrilling five-set victory. The breakthrough win propelled the Bulldogs to a top-four league finish for the first time since 2001.
It’s been a season of “first time since” mentions for third-year head coach Scott Mattera’s program, now pulsating with a winning vibe. It had been seven years since the Bulldogs had defeated either Doane or Hastings, upended a ranked opponent or racked up 20 wins in a season. It had been 11 years since Concordia claimed a win at Morningside. The program had waited six years for a GPAC tournament triumph. The Bulldogs happened to accomplish all of those things in 2014, and behind those raucous, party-like crowds, Mattera’s squad lost only twice in 12 home matches.
In 2014, Concordia volleyball buzzed on campus. Students found out just how much fun they could have watching a Claire White right-hand smash dent the floorboards.
“It's cool to be walking to class when someone you don't really know very well yells, ‘Hey, awesome game last night!’” sophomore setter Alayna Kavanaugh said. “I have heard a lot more chatter about the volleyball program (on campus), and it feels pretty great.”
The excitement began to brew in 2013 when the Bulldogs recorded their first winning season since 2007. Mattera, who arrived at Concordia in the spring of 2012, quickly helped the program become competitive, even when faced with some of the GPAC’s heavyweights. While the Bulldogs had averaged just over 10 wins per season over the four prior seasons, the former Montreat College assistant believed strongly he could steer Bulldog volleyball back up the league standings.
Mattera saw several advantages for a Concordia program that had enjoyed success in recent history, hanging a GPAC title banner in 2000 when Rachel Miller starred prior to becoming the Bulldog head coach and guiding her teams to 107 wins from 2005 to 2011.
The new head dog may have inherited a ninth-place team, but there was a lot to like beneath the surface.
“When God opened the door for me to be here, I knew the infrastructure was in place with the beautiful facilities and the support athletes are given here,” Mattera said. “The foundation was already here.
“In terms of the plan, I’ve been part of a couple of turnarounds. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. The first thing that needs to change is the mindset about the expectations as far as what we’re capable of and what it looks like. That first year was just about building trust, getting back to the basics of volleyball and implementing the things we’re going to do in the future.”
Miller, who now serves as an operations assistant to Mattera, succeeded greatly at building positive relationships with student-athletes, so some like then freshman defensive specialist Carli Smith struggled at first with the news that the coach who recruited her to Concordia was stepping away.
“She was a great coach and I have so much respect for her,” Smith said. “As every athlete would have been, I was a little skeptical going in to the process of finding a new coach. However, this situation worked out great. Coach Mattera has come in and has done a fantastic job of turning this into a great winning program. We, as a team, have a lot of respect for him as a person on and off the court and he has really made these years enjoyable for us as a team.”
With Smith, middle Mariah Schamp and other current seniors such as Amanda Abbott, Kayla James and Jami Nekoliczak, Mattera had a group of exemplary leaders. Plus Schamp was already one of the team’s most athletic players, but reinforcements were needed.
Enter the 2013 recruiting class of high school standouts Paige Getz, Kavanaugh, Tiegen Skains, Taylor Workman and NCAA Division II Washburn University transfer Claire White. All five have been instrumental in the resurgence of the program. White possesses an incredibly well-rounded game, Getz and Skains hit bullets on the ends, Kavanaugh facilitates one of the nation’s top offensive attacks and Workman dominated in the middle until tearing her ACL on Sept. 27.
Skains, who had shown interest in Montreat with Mattera still on staff, committed to the Bulldogs first following Mattera’s introduction as head coach. Workman had already been recruited by then graduate assistant Alex Szalawiga. Getz and Mattera met at a University of Nebraska camp and Kavanaugh, though not a setter in high school, sent in video that caught the eye of Concordia’s new leader.
Now they’ve come together to collaborate on a winning program.
“It's awesome being part of the class that helped turn things around and to have people recognize that,” Skains said. “Paige, Alayna, Taylor and Claire are all awesome athletes and it's been so fun winning games with them by my side. It would've been easy to go to a winning program and continue the streak, but there's something special about seeing a program change and knowing you were part of that.”
Skains played a huge role in another of Concordia’s ‘we-have-arrived’ wins. The sophomore right side exploded for a career high 20 kills, including five in the fifth set, of an upset of No. 21 Dordt on Oct. 25 that suddenly made an at-large national tournament bid seem like a possibility.
With Skains flooring momentum-building kills over, around an through an imposing Defender front row, Concordia sat on the verge of locking up that heavily-sought after top-four GPAC finish. At that point, there was no turning back. The culture had transformed.
“It is an amazing and rewarding feeling,” Smith said. “I really don't want this to be my last season. I see where this program is right now and where it's going, and it makes me so proud of my teammates and coaches of where we are and how we got here.”
The elevated play has brought a dynamic electricity to the game day atmosphere. The student sections have been large and boisterous, and they have embraced Hawaiian, Halloween and pink night themes. Opponents are finding out what a chore it is to come out of Walz with a win.
“I’ll be honest, we’ve never had a doubt that we would get there on the floor,” Mattera said. “There’s never been an idea that somehow this would fail and we wouldn’t get there, but quietly we’ve always been skeptical about whether we could draw a crowd here that’s that active and into the games. This year they have absolutely blown me away and blown our team away.”
With the bulk of its nucleus returning in 2015, this past season may be used as a springboard for even bigger things. While the Bulldogs may soon reach tremendous heights, the season gone by will always be viewed as a special year. In 2014, Concordia volleyball became hip and vogue. Think Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
If you missed it, you missed one great party – 12 of them actually.
“For us it’s a subtle mind shift,” Mattera said of the turnaround. “More importantly, we’re proving it to the community that we’re on the right track and we’re on the way up. I think you can see that with the buzz around campus and the crowds we’ve been getting. The way people look at us and talk to us is a little bit different than a few years back.”