When the 2019 season concluded at the national tournament, members of the Concordia University Volleyball team weren’t ready for the end. Five matches into a new regular season unlike any other, the anticipation for that next match and that next opportunity remains undeterred. Nope, not even Covid can rob this program of its palpable buzz fueled by the special connectedness and resilience within it.
It would only be human nature for the five Bulldog seniors to have let their minds slip into despair during the months that led up to the opening of the 2020-21 academic year. The pandemic broke the hearts of a lot of athletes this past spring and it was possible the same could happen this fall. Instead of preparing for the worst, they prepared to be champions.
“If we focused on all the things out of our control, we’d be wasting this opportunity to actually play,” said senior and Frisco, Texas, native Kara Stark. “We have so much to be thankful for, and we really try to focus on all that we’ve been blessed with — all the hard work so many people at Concordia and in the GPAC have done to make things safe for us to play. This year is obviously not what I expected my senior year to look like, but God’s been so faithful to me and to this team in the middle of all this mess.”
Mask requirements, social distancing measures and increasingly sheltered social lives are part of the deal these days. If that’s what it takes to play volleyball, these Bulldogs are on board. Even a lack of rhythm in the schedule has failed to prevent the continued upward trajectory of the program. Just four matches were played in the month of September. It’s all good. Concordia is 5-0 in the conference for the first time since 2000 and has dropped just one set to date.
The aforementioned Stark is a great example of the maturity that characterizes this senior class, which also includes Tara Callahan (Brady, Neb.), Maggie Durbin (Omaha, Neb.), Marissa Hoerman (Evergreen, Colo.) and Tristin Mason (Hampton, Neb.). They won’t take what’s happening for granted. They know all about the climb and the mental and physical hurdles that were cleared to rise up from a 9-19 record their freshman years to a squad that has the feel of a top 10 team in the country. Coaches Ben and Angie Boldt have fostered a team of believers.
“As someone that’s been around for a while, it’s pretty hard to believe that we’re 5-0 in the GPAC,” Hoerman said. “We still feel like the underdogs, and I think that’s a good thing. We put pressure on ourselves every day in practice to compete and perform, because we know the stakes get higher with every match. Ben always says anything can happen in the GPAC on any given day, which might sound obvious, but it's easy to start assuming we know what's going to happen in matches.”
With Callahan (honorable mention All-American in 2019) quarterbacking the attack, the Bulldogs are barking. They have turned the tables by beating opponents (like Dordt and Midland) that used to beat them regularly. What makes Concordia scary is it can win in different ways. It can overwhelm you one night on the attack. The next night it can beat you with superior serving and passing. Or it might be a combination of all of the above.
There’s talent here for sure, but it’s not just about talent. Each of the seniors are firm believers in doing the “little things” and working to be “connected” and “resilient” as a unit. They don’t just pay lip service to these buzzwords that serve as the company line, they live them.
Says Callahan, “This particular team is so unique because everyone is committed to this season and making it special. We know what we are capable of accomplishing and we are living our core values, on and off the court. We are confident, connected, resilient, and when we are able to compete, we focus on our team and our ability to perform and execute.”
Considering their level of play so far and their burning desire to be champions, the Bulldogs are highly incentivized to keep this season going, even if the format has changed – and even if the schedule was stripped of its nonconference dates. Not everyone around the country has this same opportunity. As junior Arleigh Costello put it, they are “cherishing every moment we get to go out and play Bulldog Volleyball.”
Says Hoerman, “Being appreciative is so important right now, and I think it's pretty hard not to be. We see what other schools and athletes are going through every day, even in our own conference, and it's really motivating for us to follow protocols and try to do the right stuff. Even then, you never know when it's going to hit us. Without being cynical all the time, we remind each other that we're lucky to be here.”
Surely there’s some luck involved, but the program has handled this current situation quite impressively to this point. All postponements and rescheduled matches that have occurred thus far have been necessitated by Concordia opponents. Of course no one wants to have any part in sidetracking this promising 2020 campaign.
The seniors in particular want to soak up every moment and see how far they can take it. When you’re doing what you love with people you love, it’s hard for life to get much better. For Durbin, part of her role is helping to “make my teammates better.”
Added Durbin, “The other four seniors have become some of my best friends in the last four years. The time we have spent together on the court and for volleyball-related stuff has translated into friendships that I hope will last forever. They are just really good people and I feel like Concordia Volleyball has brought us together and shaped us into who we are now. All of the teammates I have had at Concordia have taught me something, and I am really proud to be a part of something so significant and inspiring.”
Mason touched on similar thoughts. Said Mason, “From my four years at Concordia, this year's team has the highest team chemistry. Any team will have their certain groups, but this team is capable of connecting with everyone on the team. Seniors have been able to make connections with the freshman in a short amount of time.”
If the Bulldogs manage to qualify for the national tournament for a second year in a row, they will play on into (checks notes) … April – and maybe even the first of May. That would be something unforgettable for a senior class that already figures to leave a lasting legacy. It’s a bit of an unspoken goal, but of course these seniors would like to go out as GPAC champions.
“We have standing goals as a program, and those haven’t changed at all over the last few years,” Stark said. “This year is no different. We’re here to keep fighting, to keep growing in our relationships with each other and in our trust on and off the court, and we’re here to play volleyball.”
In the era of pandemic athletics, Bulldog Volleyball has laid out a winning game plan. When it comes to the senior class, there’s so much to be grateful for. Another opportunity awaits on Saturday.
More from the seniors
Callahan: I just continue to be thankful every day we get to practice, and I am incredibly thankful we are able to compete this fall. Even if we had played in the spring, our mindset and values would’ve stayed the same … Our core values of connected and resilience and motto of “little things” have kept us focused on the present. Of course we wonder when we’ll play again, if other teams will have to quarantine and if other games get moved, but we stay focused on ourselves to prepare for when we do get to play.
Durbin: Obviously on such a big team, not everyone is going to start. Coach always tells us we have to accept our roles, but we don't have to be satisfied with them. I think that is really important to realize on a team this big, and use that as motivation to get better for yourself, but also for the team. Even as a player who doesn't start, working my hardest will make my teammates better and I think everyone on the team has an understanding of this. When we can practice as one team working towards an ultimate goal, we aren't competing against each other for a certain spot, we are competing with each other and making each other better every day. I think that is where our success comes from, understanding that each role has its own importance.
Hoerman: As a senior class, we talk about the differences between our first and final years all the time. So much has changed, but the biggest difference to me has been the standard for team chemistry. Ben and Angie do such a great job of enforcing our foundational core values for the program (love trust, hard work, sacrifice), and as a team we're focusing on being connected as one of our additional values. When the whole team is on the same page with that, the level of volleyball improves so much faster. Our freshmen are a great example, they've embraced everything, and we can't keep them out of the gym. Our coaches have worked so hard to create a culture that allows anyone to lead by example. Our underclassmen set the standard every day.
Mason: The coaches are so down to earth and here to love us and help us be successful off the court just as much as on the court. I also believe the trust between us players and the coaches is so strong that it makes it easier to follow along with their leadership. We all believe that winning is a great variable of competing, but being able to be with each other and get better every day is just another benefit.
Stark: It’s so fun to be 5-0 in conference with this team — as seniors, we were talking after the Dordt game about how we’ve started the past couple of seasons 12-0 and 13-0, but we all agreed that it's so much more fun to be 5-0 in GPAC games. This team is special and we can all feel it. We’ve all bought into our core values, and you can feel that commitment in practice and during games — even during team lifts and non-volleyball team activities. We’ve talked a lot about what it looks like to be resilient and remain connected as a team, and I think these core values fit very well into a pandemic season. The nature of this year is that nothing is guaranteed or predictable, but our focus on remaining resilient and connected has put us in a good mindset to adapt to external circumstances while remaining true to who we’ve decided to be as a team … It’s really easy to dwell on how different this year is, how inconvenient and frustrating all these protocols and changes can be, but that’s not helpful for anyone. We get to play volleyball — there are so many schools across the nation that don’t get to play right now, and we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be in the gym every week.