DII Volleyball: Concordia-St. Paul looking for return to national championship glory
When it comes to DII women’s volleyball, Concordia-St. Paul has become the benchmark. You can argue they are one of the finest volleyball programs in the nation at every collegiate level after their incredible stretch from 2007 to 2013, a run that saw them take home the national championship title in each of those seven consecutive seasons.
Brady Starkey is the architect behind the Golden Bears highly touted program. He took over in 2003 and molded a program that had finished in fourth place the season prior all the way to become national champions. The team was eventually shutout by the University of North Alabama, but Starkey and his program got their first taste of their ultimate goal.
They knocked on the door the next three years as well, reeling off 30-win seasons with relative ease and going a perfect 46-0 in conference play between 2004 and 2006. Two rounds of 16 and an appearance amongst the final eight had the Golden Bears on the precipice of destiny. They would become a dynasty the following year, raising the bar of the program and making the expectations clear for any newcomer to Concordia-St. Paul.
If you came to play for Coach Starkey, you were coming to play for a national championship title.
“I think our players are the ones who have really done a great job of continuing the expectations we have for our program,” Starkey said. “There are rarely times that I have to remind them of how hard they need to be working to accomplish their goals. They are usually pushing each other to be better and work as hard as they can on a daily basis.”
Starkey — a three-time AVCA National Coach of the Year — has had plenty of help along the way. Amongst the many record-setting winning streaks and victories his Golden Bears have set, he has coached 46 AVCA All-Americans, including Maggie McNamara, who was the National Player of the Year in consecutive seasons starting in 2008. This season, Starkey returned three of those All-Americans — Riley Hanson, Kasey Williams and Emma Lange — who join Emily McDonough and Anna Schlaak as the sole remnants of a team that experienced the elation of winning the 2013 National Championship.
“Our seniors are some fantastic volleyball players, but they are even more amazing people,” Starkey said. “They are really some of the nicest players I have ever coached, which really makes you want it bad for them. I would think that this group feels like they have been close the last couple years and really would like to cap of their careers with a national championship.”
Riley Hanson has become one of the best players in the nation. She started all 38 games that she appeared in as a freshman for the Golden Bears National Championship squad, earning NCAA All-Tournament honors. The next two seasons saw Hanson slowly etch her name into the list of legendary Golden Bears as she became an AVCA First-Team All-American in each of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Despite the personal accolades, the one thing missing from both of those seasons was the national championship.
The Golden Bears saw their streak end in 2014 with a surprising exit in the second round and an even more surprising second place finish in the ultra-competitive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which was the first time they weren’t conference champs under Starkey’s tenure. Last season, they recaptured the NSIC title but were ousted by conference rival Wayne State.
That didn’t sit well with Hanson and her senior cohorts.
“We are on a mission,” Hanson said. “My teammates and I are taking this season one game at a time, especially us seniors. Since it is our last season playing competitive volleyball, we all want to enjoy every second of it. By focusing on smaller goals first and putting in the time, commitment and heart, we hope to achieve our bigger picture goal in the end.”
The Golden Bears have been tested thus far in 2016, although they are just beginning to tap into NSIC play. They have defeated six nationally-ranked teams, including a sweep of the defending national champions and then-No. 2 Wheeling Jesuit in the Colorado Premier Challenge. They have done it behind a balanced attack, currently leading the nation in kills per set (15.46), hitting percentage (.333) and assists per set (14.46). The latter shows just how this team works as a whole, something attained by the veteran leadership that has been through years of battles together.
“I think this veteran team compliments each other really well along with each of our individual success, which in turn leads to our overall team success,” Hanson said. “Most all of us have played together for the past three years, which has really translated to us being a natural unit on the court. The chemistry on our team is not forced, and we are familiar enough with how each other play. So, we don’t have to worry about that aspect of the game. Each of us is just as happy for another person’s success, if not more, than we are for our own, which makes this team so awesome to be a part of.”
The NSIC has long been a grind for every team in the conference, as well as the out of conference foes that choose to challenge it. This season, seven teams are amongst the most recent Sept. 26 AVCA Coaches Poll. Even more impressive is that the seven teams make up the top eleven teams in the nation with NSIC rivals Concordia-St. Paul and Minnesota Duluth having a stranglehold on the No. 1 and No. 2 spot in the nation behind perfect 13-0 record.
That’s what makes it simply astounding that Starkey’s program has been able to capture the NSIC title in 12 of his 13 years at the helms.
“It really does feel like a major accomplishment if you win our conference because the talent is at such a high level from top to bottom,” Starkey said. “Playing in our conference can be mentally draining while the season goes on because you never feel like you can take a break and regroup. You always have to be on and ready to compete. This has also really helped anyone in our conference that makes the regional tournament because you have been tested so much and really should be ready for anything at that point.”
This weekend kicks off a tough stretch for the Golden Bears. Friday night from the Ganglehoff Center is the DII Match of the Week as No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul squares off against No. 2 Minnesota Duluth. By the end of the night, only one overall undefeated team will remain in the NSIC. After a Saturday home matchup with St. Cloud State, the Golden Bears hit the road to face No. 8 Augustana and No. 9 Wayne State before returning home to face No. 4 Southwest Minnesota State.
To say that this five game stretch is brutal may be an understatement.
“We definitely have some big matches coming up in the next couple weeks, but that is what it's always like playing in our conference,” Starkey said. “You rarely go a weekend without playing a team who isn’t nationally ranked. We try to prepare for our conference by playing in the toughest non-conference schedule that we can put together that season. This year, we have played some strong teams, and hopefully, we are ready for the rigors of our conference. Those matches are always a battle because we all know each other so well. The level of volleyball is very high, and there are some great, exciting matches to watch.”
Throughout the years, Starkey has been able to build on the Golden Bears success through creating a close knit group that never seems to stray. Cassie Haag and Ellie Duffy — both of whom were All-Americans and four-time national champions — have returned to the bench as assistant coaches. Others never seem to be too far away.
“This program has been a huge part of my family,” Starkey said. “Nothing is more important to me than my family.”
For Hanson and her other seniors, the opportunity to bookend their career with another championship would be the ultimate finale. But, it was always more than that. Coming to Concordia-St. Paul wasn’t simply about championships, it was about joining a family.
A family that just so happens to be very good at playing volleyball.
“I know when I look back at my collegiate career and time here at Concordia, I will remember it as the best time in my life,” Hanson said. “Since I was young, I have always wanted to play on a competitive team, in a competitive program and for coaches I respect. I received that and so much more at CSP. Sure, I will remember some of the standout wins and losses, but I especially will remember the people and memories that have touched my life along the way. My teammates, coaches, friends, family and CSP staff have played a key role in my experience as an athlete for this program, making its success that much more memorable. I couldn’t have asked for a better collegiate volleyball experience.”