As disjointed and unique as it was, the 2020-21 season provided plenty of rewards for staff, players and supporters of the Concordia University Volleyball program. COVID-19 related schedule complications pushed the conference and national tournaments into the spring, making for an unprecedented two-part season. Despite regular breaks in the action, the Bulldogs never seemed to miss a beat and pressed forward into new territory for the program.
The arrow has continued to point skyward under the direction of Head Coach Ben Boldt and top assistant Angie Boldt, who have completed their third seasons as Bulldogs. They did a masterful job of leading this team through obvious awkward circumstances this past season.
“Through the grind of the GPAC it was a regular conference year,” Ben Boldt said. “Basically we had two seasons with the same team. We were able to look back and reflect on what changes we needed to make from the fall, and we made some adjustments with our team in that break in between. We talked through those conversations and what we needed to do. We definitely got better. We won’t necessarily have that opportunity again to go through a season and make adjustments with the same team.”
Concordia waited until Sept. 9 to begin the campaign and then made a postseason run that rolled into late April. For the first in program history, the Bulldogs reached the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament and closed the season ranked No. 8 (best ranking in school history). In addition, Concordia went 18-5 overall (12-3 GPAC), placed third in the conference regular season standings and claimed seven wins over squads that were ranked in the final top 25. Also noteworthy, the Bulldogs took both meetings from Midland (in seven combined sets) and went 7-0 against in-state opponents.
After playing a regionalized schedule all season, the team earned the reward of a trip to New Orleans for the opening round of the national tournament in mid-April. Concordia locked up a spot at the tournament’s final site (Sioux City, Iowa) with a four-set victory over Xavier University of Louisiana. In pool play at the national tournament, the Bulldogs held off Lindsey Wilson College (Ky.) in five sets before taking down defending national champion Marian University (Ind.) in four sets. The season ultimately concluded with a loss to Dordt in the quarterfinals.
Concordia’s sudden rise under the leadership of the Boldts has not been due to the presence of one or two dominant players, but has been a result of quality players at all spots on the floor. Back in the fall, five Bulldogs were recognized as All-GPAC performers: Tara Callahan (first team), Gabi Nordaker (second team), Camryn Opfer (second team), Arleigh Costello (honorable mention) and Marissa Hoerman (honorable mention).
There were many others who contributed, including additional seniors in Maggie Durbin, Tristin Mason and Kara Stark. Collectively, the senior class remained committed to finishing what it started. Said Boldt, “The first thought I have is thankful. This senior class has laid a foundation from the start, really bought in and helped us take this program to a different level. We’re excited about where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied.”
The balance of this team was reflected in the statistics. Five Bulldogs notched at least 160 kills: Opfer (238), Stark (229), Nordaker (218), Kalee Wiltfong (175) and Costello (162). Five Concordia players also recorded at least 135 digs: Hoerman (398), Opfer (236), Mason (213), Callahan (185) and Erin Johnson (135). Opfer put forth an incredible spring portion of the season and was named to the NAIA National Championship All-Tournament team. In the middle, Nordaker became an immediate force while transitioning from Millard West High School. At setter, Callahan (3,659 career assists) has been a rock all four years and picked up another NAIA honorable mention All-America award.
Said Boldt of Opfer, “Cam does everything for us – short of setting the ball. She passes, she digs, she attacks, she serves. She’s a good volleyball player. It’s nice to see her get into a mentality where she can really just be herself. It’s great to see her take ownership of her role on the team.”
Continued Boldt, “Tara does a great job of keeping everything balanced for us, which is why we’re hard to defend. For Gabi, she’s grown up. It seems like she’s been here forever because it feels like it’s been such a long season. She earned that starting spot from day one and she’s gone through some mentality things on how to manage games.”
What has been proven the past two years (with advancements to the national round of 16 and national quarterfinals) is that the program has no ceiling to contain it. In the aforementioned NAIA quarterfinal loss to Dordt, the Bulldogs let a 23-18 lead in the first set slip away. Had they held on in that set, there’s no telling where the journey would have taken them.
But that defeat does not define this particular team, which put everything it had into following its big dreams. There was a special togetherness achieved by the 2020-21 Concordia Volleyball squad. Members of the team believed in each other while using monikers like “little things” and “show yourself” as reminders of its priorities. In the classroom, the Bulldogs achieved a team GPA of 3.76 for the school year.
The memories will be long lasting. Said Boldt, “I’ll remember the national tournament from going to New Orleans to play Xavier and the experience we had up in Sioux City. It was awesome to beat the defending national champion in Marian and play a really clean game. Once you get to bracket play, the margins get super small. The relationships are the lasting thing that we’ll have.”
When the Boldts came on board prior to the 2018 season, accomplished University of Nebraska Head Coach John Cook predicted the Boldts would develop top 25 teams at Concordia. The program has become that and so much more. In other words, expectations will remain high as preseason camp approaches in August.
“We’re planning like it’s going to be normal,” Boldt said. “We’ll come back in the preseason for two-a-days. It will be a fun puzzle to put together. We return a lot and there will be people who step up. We’re excited about what we’re going to have coming back. We’ll take time to reflect and continue to get better. We’ll make some adjustments in the summer and see where we go in the fall.”