Featured Story

Season-In-Review: 2023-24 Concordia Women's Basketball

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 27, 2024 in Women's Basketball

It didn’t take long for the 2023-24 Concordia University Women’s Basketball team to establish itself as a group to be reckoned with on the national landscape. In game No. 2 of the season, the Bulldogs upset fifth-ranked Marian University (Ind.), 75-62, while getting 22 points from All-American guard Taysha Rushton. That victory laid the groundwork for Concordia to solidify itself as an NAIA top 10-ranked team for virtually the entire regular season.

While the squad’s stay at the NAIA National Championship final site in Sioux City, Iowa, was shorter than desired, Head Coach Drew Olson’s squad will look back at the ’23-24 campaign as one of many thrills.

“It’s sad because that’s a really special (senior) group,” said Olson shortly after the loss in the NAIA National Round of 16. “I just hated to see it end. All that they’ve been through in their four years, I wanted it to last longer and have a longer stay in Sioux City. That’s just how it went. I’m still really proud of what they were able to accomplish in their four years and also this season. It was a great season.”

Indeed, the seniors were instrumental in returning the program to the final site of the national tournament. The talent and experience within that class helped pave the way for the Bulldogs to post a 27-7 overall record and place as the GPAC runner up (regular season and postseason). The highlights also included a CIT championship in Mequon, Wis., and the program’s first ever opportunity to host national tournament games inside Friedrich Arena. Concordia survived the first and second rounds of the national tourney, defeating Benedictine College (Kan.), 67-57, in overtime and then Wayland Baptist University (Texas), 80-62.

Following the win over Wayland Baptist, the Bulldogs cut the nets down at home. Rushton did the honors of snipping the final threads on the west hoop before waving the net from her perch atop the ladder. As Olson said afterwards, “That will never get old. That’s a lot of fun. Those are big-time memories that they’ll never forget.” Especially for the senior players: Rushton in addition to Kendal Brigham, Sadie Powell, Hanna Spearman and Mackenzie Toomey. Together, they helped Concordia to four national tournaments (two final site appearances) and to 85 total wins. They have also combined for 4,656 points throughout their careers.

Their contributions go beyond the numbers. They set the tone for a 2023-24 squad that consistently played with grit while navigating one of the nation’s most challenging schedules. Oftentimes this past winter, the Bulldogs would find themselves facing an early hole before digging out. The classic example came at CIT when CUNE trailed 43-27 early in the third quarter versus Concordia Ann Arbor. Behind the CIT MVP Brigham, the Bulldogs actually won fairly comfortably, 73-64, on the way to the program’s 32nd all-time CIT championship.

Rushton paced the squad with a season scoring average of 15.2, followed by Powell (12.1), Brigham (11.6) and Abby Krieser (9.3). Rushton and Powell landed on the All-GPAC first team while Krieser was named to the second team and Brigham and Toomey earned honorable mention distinction. It’s been an incredible ride for the Midland, Texas, native Rushton, who rose to No. 3 on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,924 career points (to go along with 407 rebounds, 348 assists, 290 3-point field goals and 213 steals).

The backcourt also featured sophomore sniper Megan Belt (43.3 percent 3-point shooter) and freshmen Bree Bunting and Sammy Leu. The team’s top poster players included the likes of junior Abby Heemstra, freshman Raelyn Kelty and sophomore Kristin Vieselmeyer. Throw in freshman JJ Jones and there were 12 Bulldogs who appeared in at least 25 games in 2023-24. That type of depth is not unusual for an Olson-coached team that attacks opponents with its patented full-court press.

When all the pieces were fused together, Concordia had the ability to compete with anyone in the NAIA. Said Olson, “They were awesome. They accomplished so much. I just think about all the amazing comebacks they had. This team had so much fight and toughness in them. I’m just really proud of that. They competed every single day. It was a great team.”

Way back in the middle of November, Concordia pummeled Morningside, 86-62, at home. The victory marked the 446th of Olson’s career, making him the winningest head coach in the history of Concordia Athletics, regardless of sport. Olson surpassed his former college coach, Grant Schmidt (445-276), for that distinction. The team celebrated with confetti in the postgame locker room, where Olson’s family also greeted him.

The chemistry the players and coaches shared with each other was part of the secret to the season’s success. Said Brigham in light of Olson’s milestone, “I appreciate the confidence that he has in his players – he values our opinions when making team decisions. He also cares about his players beyond basketball and lets us know him beyond just being our coach. He welcomes us into his home for dinner and always brings his kids around, which means a lot to us! I’m so happy for Coach Olson and grateful to call him Coach!”

The way the Bulldogs built towards the 2023-24 season made the heights they reached all the more satisfying. Concordia exited the national tournament in the first round in 2021-22 (16-14 record) before making a leap forward the next season. Seniors like Brigham have mentioned that the past two seasons have been as much fun as any they’ve had in a competitive setting. As Rushton said after the win in the second round of the national tournament, “It makes it special having my best friends as teammates with me.”

The ability to play free and loose and with trust in each other made the Bulldogs a dangerous opponent. Throughout the campaign, Concordia defeated fellow national qualifiers in Arizona Christian, Briar Cliff (twice), Dakota Wesleyan, Embry-Riddle (Ariz.), Jamestown, Marian and Northwestern (twice). Four of those teams advanced to Sioux City for the round of 16. As Olson pointed out, all seven of the losses also came against teams that reached the final site with four of the defeats coming at the hands of the two squads that advanced to the NAIA national championship game: Dordt and Providence (Mont.). The three losses to eventual national champion Dordt were decided by a combined margin of 16 points.

The margins that separated the Bulldogs from the national round of 16 and a potential spot in the national championship game were incredibly thin. Concordia owned a seven-point fourth-quarter lead over Providence, a squad that went on to beat Marian in the quarterfinals and Caroll (Mont.) in the semifinals. Naturally, the Bulldogs felt a degree of disappointment when thinking about what could have been.

Eventually, those feelings will subside and the season will be remembered as a success. Before long, Olson and assistant Tae’lor Purdy-Korell will turn the page to 2024-25. There are still questions to be answered. The one Olson has fielded frequently at Tuesday Bulldog Athletic Association Member luncheons has centered upon whether any of the seniors will take advantage of the ‘COVID year’ of eligibility.

Olson responded to that question on a Bulldog Coaches Show that aired on 104.9 Max Country. Said Olson, “You have to give them some time and let their bodies rest. I know their bodies are telling them one thing. Give them some time and let them process everything. We’ll have a conversation about what will be best for them. I don’t know exactly what they will all do. We know Sadie Powell is going to move on to PT school. We’ll see about the others, but we’re excited about next year.”

At season’s end, Olson had one final message for the 2023-24 team. Said Olson after the national tournament, “I love them. It’s awesome to be their coach. I’m really sad it ended this way because I really felt like we were deserving of moving on. We have a really special team and this is a fun, fun group to be around. They’re selfless and embody everything that we want. I’m just really, really proud of them and love them.”