Head Coach: Ben Boldt (40-20, 3rd year)
2019 Record: 25-8 overall; 11-5 GPAC (3rd); advanced to national round of 16.
Key Returners: S Tara Callahan; RS Arleigh Costello; DS Marissa Hoerman; MB Morgan Nibbe; OH Camryn Opfer; OH/RS Kara Stark; OH Kalee Wiltfong.
Key Newcomers: MB Gabi Nordaker; MB Sarah Huss; OH/RS Shelby Stark.
Key Losses: DS Kaylie Dengel; MB Emmie Noyd.
2019 NAIA All-America: Emmie Noyd (Third Team); Tara Callahan (Honorable Mention).
2019 GPAC All-Conference: Tara Callahan (First Team); Emmie Noyd (First Team); Camryn Opfer (Second Team; Freshman of the Year); Marissa Hoerman (Honorable Mention); Kara Stark (Honorable Mention).
The road to the national tournament set for late April of 2021 (yep, that’s right) has begun in mid-August. Despite the postponement of the NAIA national event, the fall season will continue with 19 matches currently present on the regular-season slate (additional matches may be added in the spring semester). From September through early November, it will be a sprint to see who can claim the GPAC title. As Ben Boldt enters year three as head coach, he has a team full of believers.
And why not? The last time the Concordia University Volleyball Program took the court for real, it appeared in the round of 16 at the national tournament, something never before accomplished in school history. There has not been an NAIA preseason poll, but the Bulldogs were likely to appear in the top 15 after finishing ranked 14th in 2019.
“It has certainly built confidence for both our players and our returners,” says Boldt of last season’s breakthrough. “We have a couple of core values our team has embraced. The big two are being connected and showing resiliency. The resiliency comes into play with last season and how it plays into this season. It is a new year. Anything that comes at us we want to be resilient. We want to have that next ball mentality and be positive through any challenges that will come our way.”
Concordia went 25-8 overall and placed third in the GPAC last season. Those achievements went well beyond outside expectations. The previous year, Boldt’s first as head coach, the Bulldogs checked in with a 15-12 overall mark. Many of the same faces responsible for that climb upward are back in place, including 2019 all-conference honorees in setter Tara Callahan, defensive specialist Marissa Hoerman (1,039 career digs) and outside hitters Camryn Opfer and Kara Stark. Opfer and Kalee Wiltfong adapted quickly to the college game in their freshmen seasons.
The collective improvement of such aforementioned names, along with the addition of a number of impact newcomers, should help make up for the graduation of middle blocker Emmie Noyd, a third team All-American in 2019. Noyd led the way with 403 kills last season, but four others had more than 200 kills: Opfer (316), Stark (293), Wiltfong (275) and Arleigh Costello (213). Callahan averaged 10.7 assists per set (ninth most in the NAIA) while quarterbacking a squad that ranked 14th nationally in hitting percentage (.233). Conversely, Hoerman was one of the keys in holding opponents to a .157 hitting percentage.
“We’re pretty proud of where we’ve come from and where we ended up (in 2019),” Callahan said. “Our eyes are forward. Normally we come into the season as an underdog, but now we know there may be a target on our back. We’re just focused on us.”
More specifically, that focus is on the “little things” that have the potential to make a big difference. Actually, no detail seems to be too small in the eyes of Ben and Angie Boldt. They talk often about the need to have the right attitude and mindset and to always play with effort. It wasn’t just physical talent that propelled Concordia onto the national stage.
Explains Ben Boldt, “Our motto this year is little things. We are doing our best as a team to define that right now. For me it is figuring out at the core who you are. Who are you when nobody is watching? Are you going to go all the way to a line on a rep? Are you going to finish your move or are you going to reach out to a teammate when they are having an off practice? All those things when you add them up can really put you in positions to have big moments. When we break down huddles as a group, I say little things and the team says big moments.”
Few moments were bigger last season than when Costello blocked an attack for set point while clinching the program’s first-ever national tournament win – a four-set triumph over 19th-ranked Montana Tech. The Bulldogs also showed their mettle by battling No. 3 Indiana Wesleyan to five sets, allowing them to advance past pool play at the national championship.
This preseason there is an expectation of returning to the national tournament. Callahan is an established star with such respect that she’s considered an “extension of the coaching staff.” Meanwhile, Opfer could be on her way to becoming the next All-American. The Seward High School product seems to stand a strong chance of taking over the role of the team’s primary attacker – and a whole lot more.
“She has been able to have an opportunity to get better on her own,” Boldt said. “Now that we are back here we are hitting the ground running. She is going to be a player that takes swings and passes the ball for us. She has a hand in everything. Consistency and resiliency for her is going to be something not just for her but for the whole season. We are excited where we are at and we want to get out there to see where we are at.”
Morgan Nibbe is back from injury to add depth in the middle. She accumulated 132 kills and 61 blocks as a freshman in 2018 before missing all of 2019. Freshmen such as Gabi Nordaker, Sarah Huss and Shelby Stark (younger sister of Kara) will also have the opportunity to play a role. Additional returners who saw consistent playing time in 2019 include Erica Heinzerling, Erin Johnson and Tristin Mason.
In other words, there’s plenty of familiarity within the program. Says Callahan, “We’re pretty confident in the way that we do things. It just comes down to playing and executing on the court.”
Boldt hasn’t been afraid to talk about winning the GPAC as goal for this program. That is something that has not happened since 2000 when Concordia tied for first with two other GPAC rivals.
“We know what conference is like,” Boldt said. “It is a grind and we are looking forward to it. A standing goal since we have been here is to compete for a conference championship. When we approach every day we want to approach it at a GPAC conference championship level. We are excited for the opportunity and we are putting our mindset to approaching that conference championship level with a championship mentality.”
That mentality has helped members of the team navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Callahan says she and her teammates are willing to make necessary sacrifices in order to compete this fall. First serve of the 2020 season is set for 2 p.m. CT on Saturday, Sept. 5 when Baker University (Kan.) will be at Walz Arena.
Added Boldt, “We have to be tight on things we can control: attitude, effort and communication. Those are things we can control. We want to be tight systems-wise and feed off our defense the whole way.”