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Volleyball ready to look forward to 2017

By Jacob Knabel on Dec. 9, 2016 in Volleyball

The Concordia volleyball program entered this fall with high hopes a year after reaching the national tournament for the first time ever. The Bulldogs completed the campaign at 15-19 overall. That’s not what anyone associated with the program had in mind.

The best stretch of play came early in September when head coach Scott Mattera’s squad won seven-straight matches, including one over a Missouri Valley College team that went 29-9 overall. There were moments when the Bulldogs appeared like they belonged alongside some of the nation’s elite. They just never quite got over the hump while up against a schedule ranked as the 12th most difficult in the nation, according to Massey Ratings.

The Nov. 2 home finale versus eventual national champion Hastings was the season in a nutshell. Concordia pulverized the Broncos in the second set, 25-14, and led the third, 22-19, before faltering. The season record won’t show how close the Bulldogs really were.

“We competed with the best in the country this year,” Mattera said. “We had the national champs on the ropes in our gym. We know that we missed a lot of opportunities this year. We also know that we’re not far off. We don’t need to blow up the whole thing and start from scratch. We need to learn from the failings of this year, but also understand the positives that can be taken from it.”

While the senior class led by the likes of second team All-GPAC performers Paige Getz and Alayna Kavanaugh didn’t go out with another national tournament bid like it hoped, the group leaves knowing it helped raise the profile of the program. Getz, Kavanaugh and fellow seniors Tiegen Skains and Taylor Workman served as major arteries for Concordia volleyball each of their four seasons.

Getz finished her career ranked third in school history with 1,331 kills. The majority of those were set up by Kavanaugh, who piled up 4,485 assists during her time as a Bulldog. No other player in the era of rally scoring has equaled that level of production when it comes to Concordia setters. In addition, Kavanaugh’s 76 assists in a victory over Dakota Wesleyan were the most by any NAIA player in a match all season. It will take some getting used to seeing Concordia volleyball without Kavanaugh at the controls and without Getz smashing kills.

“This is going to be really weird without them,” Mattera said. “The focus of what they are and what they mean to this program isn’t about the record of 2016. It’s about everything taken into context in regards to where this program was and where it is now. People know that Bulldog volleyball is a force to be reckoned with. It’s not going to take much for us to get back on that national scene.”

What more is there to say about 2016? Nearly half the team’s matches were against opponents that were either ranked or receiving votes at the time they were contested. Concordia got out of the gate slowly, going 1-6 in the month of August. It responded admirably by winning nine of the next 10. Then it lost nine of the 10 matches that followed. It didn’t help that first team all-conference middle Annie Friesen went down with an ACL tear in the second match of the year.

The Bulldogs didn’t catch many breaks, but there were moments of brilliance from several underclassmen that will be counted upon more heavily in 2017. Freshmen Emma Brand, Jenna Eller, Emmie Noyd and Alex La Plant all saw extensive action. Noyd displayed stretches of dominance in the middle. Eller’s serves were fun for no one to handle. La Plant piled up 233 kills. Finally, Brand already proved she can step in at setter.

“When you graduate that many starters and players that are all over our record books, you might think it’s going to be a rebuilding year,” Mattera said. “None of us see it that way. We had so many underclassmen that played valuable roles and we have some that will be upperclassmen that have been waiting for their chance to prove what they can do. We are really excited about what’s coming back and what’s coming in.”

Mattera is anxious to get Friesen back on the court. She hit .374 as one of the key pieces on the 2015 national tournament qualifier. She’ll use the spring season and fall camp to return to form after having undergone knee surgery.

Replacing the leadership of the senior class will be holdovers such as Courtney Jurgens and Brand, both of whom were elected captains by their teammates. In addition to Jurgens, next year’s senior group will include defensive specialist Jocelyn Garcia, a 2015 first team All-GPAC selection who has amassed 1,347 digs over her first three collegiate seasons.

The Bulldogs are excited about wiping the slate clean as they eye a bounce back year next fall.

“We graduated a lot of big influencers in terms of personalities,” Mattera said. “There is a huge opportunity for a lot of people to influence the personality of this next team. You’re already seeing that with someone like Courtney Jurgens and Emma Brand. There are so many other personalities that are going to step into those roles and take ownership of what we’re doing.”

While Concordia will move on without its reliable pin hitters (both totaled more than 300 kills in 2016) and four-year starting setter, the outlook for 2017 is promising. The potential is there. It will simply be a younger team than what fans have seen the past couple seasons.

Said Mattera, “We see big things ahead for us.”