Her rise to the level of full-time NCAA Division I coach has been sudden. Abby Saehler actually cut her stint as a graduate assistant coach for Concordia University volleyball a bit short in order to accept an offer she couldn’t refuse. In March of 2019, Saehler joined the coaching staff at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz.
An Iowa City, Iowa, native, Saehler played at NCAA Division II Wingate University (N.C.) before taking on the GA role for the 2017 and 2018 seasons with the Bulldogs. Saehler’s experiences in Seward helped convince her that coaching was the proper career path for her.
“After my senior year at Wingate I was kind of like, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to give (volleyball) up yet,’” Saehler said. “I think being a GA was probably going to be the best bet for me so that I could continue my education and get a master’s and get a feel for what coaching was all about. It was during my time at Concordia that I really felt that this was what I was called to do. Ben and Angie (Boldt) were great. I loved my experience with them. I wanted to take everything I learned and incorporate it into my future opportunities.”
Saehler has helped both Concordia and Grand Canyon move in the right direction. The Bulldogs improved their win total by six from 2017 to 2018 while on the cusp of reaching the NAIA national round of 16 in 2019. In her first season with the Antelopes, Saehler aided in a 13-win bump for GCU, which competes in the Western Athletic Conference. Saehler works on the staff of Tim Nollan, now in his fifth season as head coach.
Already in her young career, Saehler has assisted three head coaches, including Scott Mattera and Ben Boldt at Concordia and GCU’s Nollan. Saehler had some initial doubts about whether she was ready for what she was getting herself into in Phoenix, but the Boldts helped convince her she had what it takes. Several qualities stood out.
“Abby has a great mind for the game,” Ben Boldt said. “She picked up our defensive system quickly and really did an awesome job of putting us in the right spot to defend. Another strength is her ability to relate to players. You can tell she really cares for those she is coaching.”
Saehler completed her master’s from Concordia about this time a year ago after having already moved to Phoenix. Initially, she was hired as the program’s Director of Operations, a position that comes with certain limitations in terms of coaching. However, Saehler was quickly promoted when an opening arose for an assistant position at Grand Canyon.
“Obviously my time being a GA at Concordia was coming to an end,” Saehler said. “So I started applying for jobs. I was looking online and Grand Canyon popped up. I had a phone interview with Tim and things seemed to go really well. Within two weeks I packed up my life and moved to Phoenix. That was kind of crazy. It was really hard to tell the girls I was leaving. I kind of sprung it on them.”
She really did not have to explain herself considering the chance she had in front of her. Coincidentally, Grand Canyon’s president is a CUNE alum in Brian Mueller, also the former Bulldog head men’s basketball coach. Mueller has been a driving force in transforming a school that has seen its enrollment explode. Only recently did the former NAIA member Grand Canyon make the jump to NCAA Division I.
With that transition comes some growing pains. Now the Antelope volleyball program has some momentum after going 24-6 in 2019. It had won a total of 25 matches in the previous three years combined.
“It was awesome,” Saehler said of the turnaround. “We knew Tim had been building the program. His culture was finally getting put in place. Last year we had a great set of freshmen come in and a transfer come in. Watching everyone grow and develop their skills was a lot of fun. The chemistry our girls had really took this team to a new level. They still want more.”
Saehler could see similar dynamics coming together within the Concordia program when she departed. From afar, Saehler took pride in seeing the Bulldogs jump from 15 to 25 wins during a memorable 2019 run. Said Saehler, “I’m really excited for the future of the Concordia volleyball program because I think they’re going to continue to get better.”
Of course the Boldts could certainly provide Saehler with a picture of what the NCAA Division I level would look like. Both Ben and Angie made several D-I stops before returning to their Nebraska roots. Just a few seasons ago, Saehler hammered 413 kills as a senior at Wingate.
“I went to Phoenix and took the Director of Ops position not having any idea that within a month I’d be the assistant coach,” Saehler said. “It was kind of crazy and it didn’t really seem real until I had my own office with a nametag and all that kind of stuff.”
Like the rest of us, it’s a waiting game now to see when sports will return. Grand Canyon hopes to have its whole team back on campus in July, but all athletic programs will be waiting on approval from government officials and college administrators.
At the moment, Saehler is getting to spend some time back in her home state of Iowa. Just over a year removed from being with the Bulldogs, she looks back fondly on what she called a “learning experience.” What she also says she’s learning is that the game doesn’t change no matter the level. The knowledge she acquired at Concordia continues to serve her well.
Says Saehler, “I am very grateful for my opportunity at Concordia, the people that I met and the people I got to build relationships with. Concordia will always have a special place in my heart."