In terms of the approach and the goals of the Concordia University Volleyball program, not much has changed since the 2021 season ended in the quarterfinals of the NAIA National Championship tournament back in December. If anything, the Bulldogs are physically stronger and more confident after a strong semester characterized by team-wide strength and conditioning gains. After four seasons having been led by coaches Ben and Angie Boldt, Concordia is quite comfortable with who it is and where the program is headed.
It should be easy for members of the 2022 squad to “lean in” and embrace the effort that must be put forth in order to maintain or exceed what has already been accomplished in recent seasons. “Lean in” happens to be the theme Boldt and company began to incorporate into the team culture this spring.
Explained Ben Boldt, “This year our theme is ‘lean in.’ That can be any part of our program. That can mean lean into your training. It can mean lean into your teammates. We always break our huddle with our motto. This year everyone leans in a little bit more towards each other. I’ve really liked that. We’ll continue to use it and break it down. Each person will come up with a definition for it. That theme is really just a rallying point for the year.”
The first half of this past semester was focused mostly on strength and conditioning. Following spring break, the Bulldogs started piecing things together with more team-focused practices. In spring matches, Concordia tested itself against strong opponents such as Iowa Western Community College and played at the “Collegiate Challenge” in Omaha where it faced off with the likes of NCAA Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney, Morningside and Bellevue University.
Coming off back-to-back national quarterfinal appearances, the Bulldogs believe they can play with anyone. Of course, it helps to bring back a pair of First Team All-GPAC stars like Camryn Opfer and Gabi Nordaker. Opfer will enter the 2022 campaign with a career kill total of 948 and is a clearly established leader and one of the best players in the GPAC. As a whole, Concordia welcomes back many key components from last season. The spring is about learning how those components go together.
Said Boldt, “We tinkered a lot with lineups and saw how different players played together. They were put in situations where they were able to grow. Then we had a great alumni game against a competitive team of alums. We had some good senior classes the last couple years and they brought it pretty well. It was an area for us to grow in our connection with alumni.”
One of the main storylines surrounding this year’s team will be how it moves on in the absence of five-year standout setter Tara Callahan. The question about the setter position began to be answered this spring. The strong and mighty Bree Burtwistle is a leading contender for that spot after she notched 125 assists while playing in nine matches last season. There’s also competition from Bree Green and Kelsi Heard. Concordia has shown it’s not afraid to get creative with the use of multiple setters.
So far, Coach Ben Boldt has been encouraged by what he’s seen at setter. Burtwistle and Green have been preparing themselves for the opportunity to step in. It will be different without No. 4 on the court, but the Bulldogs believe they can make the adjustment – Callahan won’t be getting a sixth season of eligibility.
“It’s been fairly seamless,” Boldt said. “Tara’s not someone you’re just going to replace, but we’ve had the two Brees – Burtwistle and Green. We’ve had them in our program for a while and they have good connections with our players. It’s been good to see them running the show. We also have Kelsey Heard coming up. We’re going to continue to grow like we did last season where we started out with one system and we kind of evolved into a new system. It’s good to see new people develop.”
Speaking of development, the Bulldogs are coming along impressively from a physical standpoint. Work in the weight room with Coach Todd Berner is paying off. Boldt says that almost across the board, Concordia players have improved a good two or three inches in terms of how high they are touching. Outside hitter Shelby Stark reached 10’ 7,” higher than any Bulldog has soared in testing during the Boldts’ tenure. Anyone who follows @cunevolleyball on Twitter may have also seen Burtwistle hang clean 175 pounds, much to the delight of teammates who cheered her on. Another scary thought – Opfer is reaching personal best heights. Plus, the squad brings back another powerful hitter in Kalee Wiltfong.
Opfer and Nordaker may be proven veterans, but Boldt is going to keep pushing them in effort to maximize their potential. Said Boldt, “For Cam, we’ve been talking about how to manage her game and we’ve been doing that ever since she’s been here, but she’s taken on more of a mentorship role. She’s helping people coming behind her with their game. She’s got a lot of experience, so she’s been really good at it … We have challenged Gabi a lot as far as becoming more available to attack. It’s sometimes tough to get her the ball because she plays in the middle. If we don’t have a good pass or a good dig, we can’t get it to her. If the pass is off the net, we’re working on getting her in position to still be available to attack. Right now is the time for growth.”
Compared to this time a year ago, the Bulldogs are in a vastly different position as far as where things stand in the back row. Of the seven Concordia players to register at least 75 digs last season, six of them return in 2022: Opfer (389), Rebecca Gebhardt (295), Cassidy Knust (113), Lexie Kreizel (84), Burtwistle (81) and Kennedy VanScoy (75). Said Boldt of the group, “There was a transition from last year and those players that were back there (in 2021) are becoming more confident for sure.”
Anyone who has listened to Boldt since he arrived in Seward knows he preaches serving and passing. Also since the very beginning – Concordia has worked tirelessly with a goal of eventually breaking through and winning a GPAC championship. That’s a lofty goal, but the Bulldogs have positioned themselves to think big. This spring only made the team surer of itself. Time to buy in – and lean in.
“Our standing goal is to win the conference championship,” Boldt said. “We talk about that all the time. We’re not going to live or die based on whether we accomplish that goal, but that is going to be our motivator. When you prepare yourself for a GPAC championship, you prepare yourself for national championships. Those are our two goals: conference championship, national championship. That’s going to be the result of our work ethic and staying true to our core values. Whatever work you put in, the score takes care of itself. That’s going to be our motivation and we’ll see how far it takes us.”