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Season preview: 2016 Concordia volleyball

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 15, 2016 in Volleyball

Head coach: Scott Mattera (73-56, four years); 2015 GPAC tri-coach of the year
2015 Record: 26-9 overall; 12-4 GPAC (T-4th); GPAC tournament runner up; national tournament qualifier
Key Returners: M Annie Friesen; DS Jocelyn Garcia; OH Paige Getz; S Alayna Kavanaugh; RS Tiegen Skains; M Taylor Workman.
Key Newcomers: S Emma Brand, OH/DS Jenna Eller, OH Alex LaPlant, M Emmie Noyd.
Key Losses: OH Claire White.
2015 GPAC All-Conference: Annie Friesen (first team); Jocelyn Garcia (first team); Alayna Kavanaugh (first team); Paige Getz (second team); Claire White (second team); Tiegen Skains (honorable mention); Taylor Workman (honorable mention).
2015 NAIA All-America: Jocelyn Garcia (honorable mention); Alayna Kavanaugh (honorable mention). 

Season Outlook
There’s unfinished business left over from the 2015 season that culminated with a home loss to Olivet Nazarene in the opening round of the national tournament. The defeat prevented Concordia from advancing to Sioux City for the next level of the national championships.

But the abbreviated stay at the national tournament did not define a historic season for a Bulldog volleyball program that had never before reached the national stage. Even University of Nebraska head coach John Cook, who led the Huskers to the 2015 NCAA Division I national title, acknowledged Concordia’s rise during a summer camp session.

The rapid rise has been in the works for the past few seasons, fostered by fifth-year head coach Scott Mattera (2015 GPAC tri-coach of the year) along with the core four group of seniors consisting of outside hitter Paige Getz, setter Alayna Kavanaugh, right side Tiegen Skains and middle Taylor Workman.

“The real reward is seeing the girls’ work pay off and sitting back and watching them realize that it was all worth it,” Mattera said. “They felt such joy as the community got behind them so much. You just kind of stand back as almost a proud parent watching them get what they earned. That was really cool to see that for the girls.”

The Bulldogs have increasingly captivated the campus with a powerful style of play that resulted in them ranking inside the top 20 nationally in kills per game a season ago. As the quarterback of the attack, Kavanaugh has a bevy of dangerous hitters at her disposal. Last season three different Bulldogs totaled at least 300 kills and another two had 240 or more. Getz led the way with a career high 346 and now stands just 44 kills off of 1,000 for her career.

Getz serves as a vocal leader for a senior class that’s about as good as it gets when it comes to program history. The season before the group arrived in Seward, the Bulldogs went 10-21 as Mattera began to restock the program in his first season. Concordia has gone a combined 63-35 since then. But Mattera believes there’s another level they can reach this season.

“They believed we were going to do this,” Mattera said. “They bought in before they even got here. They’ll never know how much that meant to me. They bought in before they could even see the evidence of who we were going to be. They’ve done nothing but make it great the last few years. Now I’m looking for them to not only be great players and people off the floor but take on those leadership roles that they’ve been evolving into the last few years.”

The junior class also features two big stars in middle Annie Friesen and defensive specialist Jocelyn Garcia. The 6-foot-1 Friesen made immense strides from her freshman to sophomore year, earning first team all-conference accolades in 2015. The native of Wichita, Kan., commanded attention for her dominance in the middle (.374 hitting percentage) and for her playful antics on the court. Rock-star salutes and in-huddle dances were part of her repertoire.

Mattera endearingly tags his team with labels such as goofballs, goobers and nerds. They keep the atmosphere light, to be sure. “A group of nerds? I’d say that’s probably half right,” Kavanaugh joked. Whatever, it works.

“It’s part of our culture here,” Mattera said. “It’s carved out a pretty interesting niche for us. When we have recruits come and play with us they’re kind of amazed by how loose we are and how much we let them go – just be nerds and goofballs at practice. We’ve got a group of young ladies that plays better when they’re looser and having fun. Sometimes we have to rain it in, but we do have one of those groups that plays better when they’re laughing.”

Garcia’s play in the back row is no laughing matter. She’s a budding star who frequently shows no regard for her body in diving all over the hardwood. She was named the West Central Region Libero of the Year for good reason. With Claire White, a steady attacker and passer, having graduated, Garcia becomes even more important.

The Bulldogs also have to make up for the departures of a host of 2015 seniors who were labeled as role players. Several saw time in the back row as defensive specialists. In other words, there is opportunity for underclassmen, including the group of incoming freshmen. Rookies such as Emma Brand (Springfield, Mo.), Jenna Eller (David City, Neb.), Alex LaPlant (Cypress, Texas) and Emmie Noyd (Shelby, Neb.) possess the ability to grab early playing time. Says Mattera, “It’s a pretty special class of kids.”

They have a chance to make for another special season at Concordia, which made a run to the 2015 GPAC tournament championship match. With so many key parts back in place and with very few questions to answer, expectations remain high.

“We all are expecting to go to nationals and do well,” Kavanaugh said. “I think we can definitely do that. We have the potential to be top four (in the GPAC) and maybe win it.”

A successful season will have to be earned while up against a meat grinder of a schedule. Last season Concordia was one of five GPAC teams to rank in the top 25 of the postseason coaches’ poll. The conference is expected to be strong again. Not only that, the Bulldogs will test themselves significantly outside the GPAC early versus nationally-ranked teams in Eastern Oregon and Rocky Mountain (Mont.) as part of a journey to Butte, Mont. The trip will provide an indication of where Mattera’s squad stands.

Last season Concordia got over the hump against elite competition. Most impressive were road wins over Midland, undefeated at the time, and over Northwestern. It’s those signature moments that have the Bulldogs, not just believing, but knowing they can play with anyone in the country. The Bulldogs have improved each season while employing the current class of seniors. The next step is to make it to Sioux City – and it’s just fine to talk about it.

“I’m totally OK talking about those kinds of things,” Mattera said. “It’s one of the things that Nebraska volleyball did so impressively last year. They weren’t afraid to talk about making the Final Four in Omaha last year. We’re saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what we want to do.’ On the flip side, people ask what your goals are for the season. We don’t sit down and say, ‘We need this many wins or we want to be ranked this high in the country.’ It’s a matter of we know what we’re capable of and we want to get there. We believe if we take care of the process, treat each other the right way and work to get better every day, the results will take care of themselves.”

Concordia opens the 2016 season on Saturday when it hosts Waldorf College at 5 p.m. The Warriors, a member of the North Star Athletic Association, went 9-29 in 2015.