If you had warped into the future and happened to catch a glimpse of Concordia University volleyball in the NAIA National Championship round of 16, you would have sworn you had set your DeLorean time machine for the year 2020 or perhaps even 2021. Nope, this is 2019. It only felt as though the Bulldogs had made at least two years of progress in a much shorter timeframe.
Two years removed from a 9-19 record in 2017, second-year head coach Ben Boldt’s squad began this fall completely off the national radar.
“It shows where our program is at,” Boldt said. “For our team to do this their first go-round and compete with top 25, top 10 teams validates the work that they’ve put in. The match we played against Indiana Wesleyan was a great match. They took it to us in the first two sets and then we took it to them in the next two sets. Then it was a dogfight in the fifth set. They were ranked No. 3 in the nation. It just kind of tells us where we’re at and the kind of bar we need to set for ourselves.”
The bar will not be an easy one for future Concordia teams to clear. The 2019 Bulldogs far exceeded their eighth-place positioning in the GPAC preseason poll by going 25-8 overall (11-5 GPAC) with a third-place GPAC finish and the program’s best ever postseason national ranking of 14th. Along the journey, Concordia ended series droughts against rivals such as Dordt, Hastings and Midland while showing it could more than hold its own with the two GPAC squads that reached at least the national quarterfinals, Jamestown and Northwestern.
The rapid growth displayed during the two seasons with Ben and Angie Boldt leading the way has been impressive. Middle blocker Emmie Noyd had been more than solid in her previous three seasons, but she rose to stardom in 2019 and landed on NAIA’s All-America third team. Noyd became the first Bulldog to crush 400 kills since 2007 while being spurred by junior setter Tara Callahan, who also enjoyed a stellar season.
Callahan quarterbacked an attack that ranked in the top 20 nationally in both hitting percentage and kills per set. Unfortunately, middle blocker Morgan Nibbe missed the season because of injury, but Callahan still had plenty of options. Five Bulldogs notched more than 200 kills: Noyd (403), freshman Camryn Opfer (316), junior Kara Stark (293), freshman Kalee Wiltfong (275) and sophomore Arleigh Costello (213). It all added up to a season to remember.
“We’re satisfied, but not fully satisfied,” Ben Boldt said. “I believe that we gave everything that we have. Now we all know what to expect. I don’t want to promise any results in the future. I want to get them back refocused on what it took to get there. It’s all the things that we talk about. It’s a daily process that we need to continue if we’re going to get better. Nobody’s ready to be done playing volleyball and that’s the feeling that you want to have.”
The additions of Opfer, the GPAC Freshman of the Year, and Wiltfong were big-time. Their arrivals combined with the collective improvement of the returners were enough to make this a squad that could compete on the national level. Even in the match that ended Concordia’s season, the set losses came by two points (twice) and three points, respectively. Throughout the entirety of the campaign, it was a team that believed.
It’s hard to say exactly what allowed the Bulldogs to turn the corner, but the August victory over then 19th-ranked Corban University (Ore.) proved to be a significant one. Even as early as Sept. 4, Opfer confidently stated, “We have something special and I think everyone knows that.” Nationally, it took a bit longer for others to get the picture. It wasn’t until Oct. 23 that Concordia cracked the NAIA top 25.
Said Boldt after the elimination loss to fourth-ranked Missouri Baptist University, “I kind of took us back to where we were at this point at the end of last season and everything we’ve put into this season. With the standards that we have, the results take care of themselves. We’ve got to continue those standards. One of the things we’ve taken from other Concordia programs is that tradition never graduates.”
The Boldts were masters at getting this particular team to hone in on the task at hand and once a victory was claimed, it was time to look forward. The team’s theme of “This Is Us” was about taking ownership of the good and the bad. There was time for fun and time to get serious. On an early-season road trip, the Bulldogs performed “The Git Up” dance, coaches and all. A memorable moment also occurred when Ben Boldt grabbed the microphone and sang the National Anthem prior to a home match.
All of these moments made for quite a senior season for Noyd. How Concordia replaces her will be the biggest question mark for the program heading into 2020.
“The Tara-to-Emmie connection has been something that has been a staple of Concordia volleyball,” Boldt said. “We’re going to miss Emmie. We’re going to be a different team without her. Her being recognized as an All-American is something for our players to look up to and a good tone to set for the people that are involved in our program.”
Noyd and three fellow seniors will bid goodbye to the program, but plenty of talent remains on hand. It seems that Opfer and Wiltfong are just scratching the surface of their abilities. In 2020, Callahan and libero Marissa Hoerman will serve as senior leaders. These Bulldogs are in good hands. If we could travel that DeLorean into August 2020, we would expect to see Concordia listed as a preseason top 25 team.
Says Boldt, “It's about getting better. We’ll have a different theme for next year. Our theme for the 2019 season was ‘This Is Us.’ That’s about taking ownership of who you are and creating relationships on the court and off the court. Moving forward we’re going to have to strip it down and build it back up. I don’t want us to feel entitled to anything. That’s the message I want our team to hold onto. I want us to continue to fight like we’re an underdog and go to work and continue to get better. We’re happy but not satisfied. We’re looking forward to the future because we’re hungry for it.”