It came to an abrupt end at the final site of the NAIA National Championship tournament, but the passing of time since then has allowed for proper perspective. The 2023 season continued an incredible five-year run that has seen the Concordia University Volleyball program rise to national prominence. For the first time in the program’s history, the Bulldogs achieved a No. 1 NAIA national ranking while following the lead of a strong group of veterans, including fifth-year collegiate players Bree Burtwistle and Camryn Opfer.
More significant than the wins and losses, coaches Ben and Angie Boldt guided a squad centered upon the team’s foundational values. Win or lose, the coaching staff never had to worry about how the team would respond emotionally or mentally.
“They really embodied our core values: love, trust, hard work and sacrifice,” Ben Boldt said. “They really play for each other. There’s no one person that’s the main focus of everything, and they know that. They’ve done an awesome job of sacrificing things they could have done in their personal lives and individual stats that they could have had for the betterment of the team. That’s always been the mentality of this group. I don’t see that changing. Whether or not you win a championship, that doesn’t say who you are as a person. This entire team as people is exactly why we got into coaching. It’s been incredibly rewarding for our whole coaching staff and hopefully everyone involved with the team.”
The loss to Midland in national tournament pool play prevented Concordia from a chance at accomplishing the ultimate goal, but there were many thrilling moments throughout the 2023 journey. The Bulldogs toppled Jamestown (four sets) in front of a raucous Friedrich Arena crowd on Oct. 6, clinched a share of the GPAC regular season title with a win at Midland on Oct. 31 and enjoyed the opportunity to host three postseason matches, including one in the national tournament opening round. With a final record of 25-4 overall, the ’23 squad recorded the highest winning percentage (.862) in a single season in school history.
Throughout the campaign, Concordia displayed impressive balance. The team’s solid serve and pass game combined with Burtwistle and an array of powerful attackers made the Bulldogs must-see TV once again. Burtwistle and company led the NAIA in kills per set (14.59) while ranking sixth nationally in hitting percentage (.257). It was also a season of milestone achievements as Opfer surpassed 1,500 career kills and digs, Gabi Nordaker eclipsed 1,000 career kills, Burtwistle moved past 3,000 career assists and Rebecca Gebhardt hit the 1,000-dig plateau.
Burtwistle was named the GPAC Setter of the Year on Nov. 14 as one of seven Bulldogs with all-conference honors. The other award winners were first teamers Nordaker and Opfer, second teamers Ashley Keck and Carly Rodaway and honorable mention performers Gebhardt and Cassidy Knust. Due to the benefit of the ‘COVID year’ of eligibility, Opfer earned five All-GPAC awards during her impeccable career. She concluded her career ranked third on the program’s all-time lists for both kills and digs.
“If you would ask them, I think they would say they are happy they came back and gave it another run,” Boldt said of Burtwistle and Opfer. “You only live once. I can’t imagine any athlete would look back on their career and not yearn for one more year. We were so thankful that they took advantage of that opportunity. They left their stamp on this team and left their mark on the program. They’re legends of Concordia Volleyball. It’s a testament to them coming to work every single day and letting the results speak for themselves. It’s been really awesome what they’ve meant to the team and the legacy that they will leave. Looking forward, Gabi is coming back. There are ways she can continue to grow and evolve. I think Gabi is ready to lead us into what’s next. It’s great to have that veteran presence on our team.”
In making the decision to return in 2024, Nordaker will have the chance to add to her three career All-GPAC awards. She starred in the middle again this past fall and will enter her fifth season having totaled 1,160 kills and 458 blocks for her career. The Omaha native will have a new setter to work with next year as the Bulldogs say goodbye to Burtwistle. A native of Stanton, Neb., Burtwistle served as the team’s setter for two seasons after Tara Callahan finished her five-year Concordia career.
The 2023-24 class of fourth-year players included not only Nordaker, but also Rodaway, Ashtynn Frahm, Sara Huss, Lexie Kreizel, Maddy Nagel, Addison Smith and Shelby Stark. The decision for Nordaker to return in 2024 became official when the program celebrated its senior day in late September. Each of the seniors contributed in their own way, and accepted their roles, however big or small. Often inserted into the lineup when a spark was needed, Huss routinely came through. She delivered the kill for match point in the momentous win at Midland to finish the regular season.
Not since the year 2000 had the program seized a conference championship. The final 2023 GPAC standings showed Concordia, Jamestown and Northwestern each tied for first with identical 14-2 league records. As the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, the Bulldogs reached the GPAC final for a third year in a row. A nail-biter in Orange City, Iowa, ultimately went to the Red Raiders in five-sets in the championship match.
This was a Concordia squad built to compete with any team in the nation. The Bulldogs garnered the No. 1 national ranking in two separate polls. The untimely rough performance on the national stage will sting, but Concordia will not be defined by that one match.
“First of all, I’m proud of our team,” Boldt said. “We had a great season. It was disappointing we didn’t get past the pool play round. We didn’t play our best match. We’ll take this and we’ll learn from it. We’re always working and trying to figure out how to get better. All the effort that our team has put in throughout the whole year – they’ve done it in a championship way. I’ve been really proud and thankful for all the effort they’ve put in. We didn’t hit some of our goals, so that shows us where we need to get better. We’re going to keep striving for that in the future.”
The expectation for Concordia will certainly be to return to the final site at the national tournament. The Bulldogs will be anchored by the likes of Gebhardt, Keck and Nordaker. The Kearney native Keck proved in 2023 that she could be an all-rotation player while sending heat from the outside. A boost will also be supplied by the addition of Ella Waters, who redshirted this past season after transferring from Washburn University. Several other contributors will return, such as Ava Greene, Addie Kirkegaard, Maddie Paulsen and Kya Scott.
Once the second semester gets started, Concordia will turn the page and ramp up preparation for the 2024 season.
Said Boldt, “We get our Christmas break to kind of recover. Then in the spring, we have the mentality of getting better. When individuals get better, the team gets better. That’s really going to be our focus. We’re going to hit the weight room hard in the middle of January. We’ll get some spring games and hopefully we’re jumping higher, getting stronger throughout the spring and getting better as volleyball players. We put in the work beginning in January and get ourselves ready for the fall.”