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Season preview: 2017 volleyball

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 7, 2017 in Volleyball

Head coach: Scott Mattera (88-75, five years); 2015 GPAC coach of the year
2016 Record: 15-19 overall; 6-10 GPAC (7th)
Key Returners: S Emma Brand; OH/DS Jenna Eller; M Annie Friesen; DS Jocelyn Garcia; DS Courtney Jurgens; OH Alex La Plant; M Emmie Noyd
Key Newcomers: OH Kelsey Baarck; S/RS Tara Callahan; DS Marissa Hoerman; M Anna Lund
Key Losses: OH Paige Getz; S Alayna Kavanaugh; RS Tiegen Skains; M Taylor Workman
2016 GPAC All-Conference: Paige Getz (second team); Alayna Kavanaugh (second team); Jocelyn Garcia (honorable mention); Tiegen Skains (honorable mention) 

There’s a breath of fresh air inside the Concordia volleyball program, now two years removed from its breakthrough national tournament berth in 2015. The Bulldogs’ fortunes reversed last season while up against one of the nation’s most challenging schedules. Lessons were learned during a campaign that resulted in a 15-19 overall mark. 

That record and the graduation of four prominent seniors fail to indicate the high level of talent that remains on board for sixth-year head coach Scott Mattera. Concordia believes it can make a dent, even inside a conference that put three teams into the 2016 national semifinals.

“I think this will be a year where we’re not worried what other people think about us going in,” Mattera said. “That includes me, too. I like the personality of this group and the raw talent. We’re long and athletic. It’s going to be a hard-working group that might raise some eyebrows as we develop together.”

Team captains, as voted by teammates, Emma Brand and Courtney Jurgens want to help lead a team that will hopefully avoid some of the issues that plagued it in 2016. The Bulldogs got off to a 1-6 start and had difficulty digging out. When in conference play, there wasn’t much margin for error while routinely playing top-ranked opponents.

“I think we learned to accept adversity a little better,” Jurgens said. “I hope that this team can be remembered for our hard work. We have a lot of really good players, but I want to see more of our hearts come out and really have that team unity, instead of individual talents, that drives us forward.”

Under Mattera, Concordia has emphasized power volleyball. Nearly 3,000 career kills have moved on between the departures of Paige Getz, Tiegen Skains and Taylor Workman. But Mattera doesn’t have to lose sleep because senior middle Annie Friesen, a first team All-GPAC choice in 2015, is back from a torn ACL and junior outside hitter Kelsey Baarck (transfer from Mott CC) is ready to make a significant impact after redshirting last fall. Heavily counted upon as freshmen in 2016, outside hitter Alex La Plant and middle Emmie Noyd now have a year of seasoning.

Throw in junior right side Jenna Habbegger in addition to the incoming recruiting class and there remains an abundance of the flashy hitters that inspire fans to fill the seats. If Friesen’s senior season resembles something close to her healthy sophomore season, the chances for a bounce back season will skyrocket.

“She’s a great presence at the net,” Mattera said. “She was top five in the country in hitting percentage her sophomore year. Emmie did an amazing job of filling in as a freshman. She really had a nice year. Annie is a huge source of energy. She’s somebody that keeps things light and loose, but still intense. She’s a huge competitor and somebody people like playing with and being around. That energy is such a hard thing to replace. Getting that back, we’re just a little excited about that.”

Friesen and a deep group of attackers will have a new setter. Alayna Kavanaugh started at that spot for four years, piling up 4,485 assists. With Kavanaugh having graduated, Brand has the most experience. She got extensive time when Kavanaugh sat out with an injury in the middle of the season. Brand dished out 41 assists in a straight-sets win over Briar Cliff. Another option is versatile freshman Tara Callahan, a first team all-state selection out of Brady High School. The 6-foot-1 Callahan can also play on the right side.

The most experienced player on the roster is senior defensive specialist Jocelyn Garcia. A three-year starter at libero, Garcia boasts a career total of 1,347 digs and was a first team all-conference performer in 2015. Mattera has no shortage of options among defensive specialists with names like Jurgens, Jenna Eller, Harlie Himmelberg and Madison Horne in the mix. Baarck and La Plant are also very capable passers out of the back.

There’s a lot be sorted out yet before the season’s first serve. Says Mattera, “The staff shift is a big deal and it’s been really successful and helpful so far. Then bringing in 11 newcomers. We graduated eight total and four, four-year starters. There are going to be a lot of new faces out there. We hope to continue the legacy that those (seniors) built.”

The staff shift Mattera speaks of involved the hiring of Abby Pollart, previously of South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, as the program’s first full-time assistant. She is also joined on the staff by graduate assistant Abby Saehler, who played collegiately at Wingate University. Both of the Abbys are drawing rave reviews. Said Jurgens, “We absolutely love Coach P. She has been so fantastic.”

The staff changes, the roster turnover, election of captains and many other factors ensure that the 2017 team will have a completely different identity. The vibe is much more positive than outsiders might expect after the results that came about last fall.

“We’re really excited about the structure we have coming back,” Mattera said. “The girls have really bought in to some of the cultural training we’ve gone through. We’re really excited about the idea of being in the gym together and getting better every day. When adversity comes, we’re looking to respond to it.”

For so many reasons, the 2017 season will be a fascinating one. There’s a buzz about new faces like Baarck, Callahan and others. Friesen is back in the middle. There’s intrigue over the transition at setter. How much of a leap will last year’s freshmen make in their sophomore seasons? Will a whistling Eller serve actually go straight through the net? How much will this team improve in the face of what was the NAIA’s best conference in 2016? We’ll soon have answers.

Mattera views the grind of the GPAC as a positive. Concordia will have plenty of opportunities to make noise and grab people’s attention.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” said Mattera of the strength of the GPAC. “It’s hard to move up in your conference when everyone is vying for top 25 in the country. We had seven teams last year that were nationally ranked at some point. That’s a really good thing because it forces you to get better faster.”

Bulldog volleyball kicks off the 2017-18 year for all Concordia athletic teams. Mattera’s squad opens its season by hosting Baker University (Kan.) on Saturday, Aug. 19. First serve is set for 3 p.m. CT.