By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
There they were together as freshmen on the grandest of stages. The likes of Kelsey Hizer, Bailey Morris, Jericca Pearson and Tracy Peitz were just rookies, but head coach Drew Olson had the confidence to throw them all on the floor at the same time as second-ranked Concordia attempted to knock off College of the Ozarks in the semifinals of the 2012 national tournament.
It turned out that the group perfectly complimented other stars like Kristen Conahan, Amber Kistler and Katie Rich to form one of the best teams in the history of the program. The 2011-12 recruiting class has served as a major artery ever since arriving in the fall of 2011, none of its members having previously met.
Fast forward to 2015 and one will find a closely-bonded bunch of seniors that’s nearly as accomplished as any class ever at Concordia, regardless of sport. On Saturday the seniors notched their 100th victory by toppling Dordt, 103-74, pushing their four-year record to 100-19. It’s yet another bullet point on a growing list of accomplishments.
“I could see our talent and potential individually and as a group,” said Morris, the 2013-14 GPAC player of the year. “Then when I realized how hard everyone was willing to work to get better, I knew we were going to be a scary group for the next three years. I don’t think I’ll be able to comprehend what we’ve accomplished until basketball is over and I get a chance to look back on our careers. I have a feeling it’ll be pretty overwhelming when I do realize how great of a run we had.”
Olson compares the current collection of four-year players to the one that enjoyed the program’s best ever four-year record from 2001-05 when the Bulldogs went 123-21 and made two trips to the national semifinals. Morris and company could rival those accomplishments by the time they’re through.
No doubt Olson will be sad to see them go.
“It's more than just their success on the court,” Olson said. “I really enjoy being around them. I love all their personalities and seeing them change through the four years. They all have their unique qualities but they have great commonalities of competitiveness, toughness, a good sense of humor and positive energy and enthusiasm each day.”
An understanding of this senior class’s special nature requires a look beyond the three-straight national tournament appearances, three combined GPAC titles (two regular season and one tournament championship) and 42-straight national rankings. There’s a genuine admiration for one another, and it’s not just lip service.
It’s quite common for members of the senior class, which includes Ashley Kuntz and Rachel Royuk, to hang out with one another beyond their basketball commitments.
“They all feel like sisters to me,” Hizer said. “We have been playing together and growing together these past four years and I feel like I have known them my whole life. We know exactly what each other is going to do on the court and we have a bond with each other that I wouldn't trade for anything else. We are serious when it comes to games, but also we know how to have fun.”
Olson’s starting lineup includes Hizer, Morris and Peitz with Pearson serving as one of the team’s top performers off the bench. Morris brings plenty of pizazz and flair and is knocking on the door in her bid to become the program’s all-time leading scorer. Peitz possesses a vast skillset and was last season’s GPAC defensive player of the year. Hizer does all of the little things. Pearson gets tough points and boards in the pant. And Kuntz and Royuk provide solid minutes in reserve.
Collectively, the senior class has amassed 4,107 points, 1,790 rebounds, 862 assists and 863 steals over its 119 games together – key word being ‘together.’
“Our class is amazing,” Peitz said. “We get along and share a great friendship outside of basketball. Because of this, I think it brings us closer together on the court and creates lifelong memories I will always cherish. It is never a dull moment.”
Hizer, Morris and Peitz all mentioned Olson as a big factor in their decisions to come to Concordia. Five of the six seniors hail from Nebraska, while Hizer arrived via Colorado’s Parker Lutheran High School, where she was coached by Mark Duitsman, a teammate of Olson’s at Concordia.
“He had a big influence on me to go play college basketball,” Hizer said of her high school coach. “I loved the school when I went and toured it and meeting all the girls on the team, I knew it was the right fit for me. Getting the opportunity to play the sport that I love and continuing to use the talents God has given me is a big reason why playing basketball appealed to me.”
It’s clear Hizer knows she made the right choice after mulling whether she wanted to play college basketball. She and her fellow classmates now set the example for how to play winning basketball within an environment that is all about the team.
“I’m not really sure if I can even describe it,” Morris said. “Because we’ve all been playing so much since our freshman years, we’ve developed a closeness and created memories that we’ll never be able to share with anyone else. As teammates, we’ve gone through the same highs and the same lows and have become better friends because of them. That closeness has carried over to our lives outside the gym. We have a blast when we hang out together.”
The group will likely get to hang out together as teammates one last time when the 2015 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Championships commence on March 11 at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. The senior class has experienced a combined 26 games at the national tournament.
They will know exactly what to expect – and they expect to win. First-round exits the last two years have left bad tastes in their mouths. Based on a dominant first 17 games of this season, the Bulldogs have eyes on a deep March run.
Said Peitz, “We all have a chip on our shoulders so to finish the year out better.”
A thrilling March run would build upon an already impressive level of accomplishment put forth by few other groups of classmates in the annals of Concordia University athletics.