Oct. 27, 2009

By Amy Farnum

The Concordia University, St. Paul women’s volleyball team has won the last two NCAA Division II titles and has yet to lose a match this season, yet the Golden Bears are far from satisfied with those mighty accomplishments.

The senior leaders of the squad – setter Maggie McNamara, rightside hitter Sadie Kessler and libero Mary Slinger – have compiled a 182-8 (.958) record over the last four years, losing just one Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference match during the stretch, and are within reach of claiming their fourth straight league title as the regular season concludes in the coming weeks. 

The two-time defending NCAA champions have lost only three sets this season on their way to a perfect 25-0 record, which includes 10 victories over ranked opponents.  They have held the No. 1 ranking in the AVCA Division II Top 25 every week since the preseason poll was released in August.  However, the Golden Bears are still striving to get better.

“I think a lot of it has to do with our coaches’ expectations for us, and his drive and our drive to not just settle for good, but try to achieve greatness,” said McNamara.  “Sometimes, it is frustrating as a player because we are winning and doing well, but they are not satisfied with that.  That’s what makes us stand out from the crowd is that we keep striving and working hard, but having fun at the same time.”

Every player on Concordia’s roster hails from the state of Minnesota, and several played with or against each other during their club and high school days.

“(Most of us have) known each other, or known of each other or played against each other for awhile,” said Slinger.  “That comes into effect, too, because we’ve all known each other and been around each other for so long.”

McNamara credits head coach Brady Starkey for not only bringing good players to Concordia, but good people.

“It’s kind of amazing to not just have talented players, but people that work together so well,” said McNamara.  “That’s one thing great about Brady is that when he recruits players, he asks us for our opinions about them and if we could play with them or be friends with them off the court.” 

Slinger agrees that the team’s chemistry is an important factor in the Golden Bears success over the years.

“We’re all on the same page,” said Slinger.  “We love the sport of volleyball and love to have fun while playing it.  It’s brought us a lot of success. The fact that we’re all willing to work hard to get better each day -- it comes down to playing a sport you love with a bunch of friends.”

Each of the senior brings a different quality to the squad – McNamara’s sense of humor, Slinger’s steadiness and Kessler’s emotion – that has played into the group’s stellar career.

McNamara, last season’s AVCA National Player of the Year, leads the nation with 13.47 assists per game, and is fourth on the Division II all-time assists list.

“There’s such a balance with her (McNamara) between having fun and knowing when to turn on her game,” said Slinger.  “She always wants to have fun and make sure it stays light on the court.  We look to her for that.  When things get tense in a tough match, she’ll be the one to crack a joke or do something funny.  Maggie, as the setter, we obviously look to her for leadership, so when she comes out with something like that we all loosen up a bit.”

Slinger was a second-team AVCA All-American in 2008, and currently leads the Golden Bears with 5.04 digs per set, while Kessler received All-American honorable mention last year and is a key contributor on the nation’s best hitting team (.325) that averages 15.6 kills per set.

“Mary is obviously a great libero, but she brings a sense of steadiness to the team,” said McNamara.  “I think that helps the team in down times.  She’s like our rock.  Sadie is super, super emotional.  Her celebrations and her energy are always perfect and needed on the court – not just her skills on the court.”

The players say that keeping up the rapid pace of an undefeated season while shooting for a third NCAA title is not as much pressure as people may think.

“We don’t think about the pressure – we’re just out there playing,” said Slinger.  “We’re constantly working to get better, and our coaches to an incredible job of stressing that every day of practice and in every match.  There’s not really an opportunity to think about the pressure because we’re constantly thinking we have to get better.”

“We don’t feel pressure from anyone else but ourselves,” said McNamara.  “We don’t think about losing that much.  We don’t think we can roll over everyone, but we don’t get scared by it (losing).”

The Golden Bears have six regular season NSIC matches remaining over the next three weekends, beginning with Augustana College on Oct. 30.