The name Concordia and Division II Volleyball go hand in hand. The Concordia-St. Paul Golden Bears are currently the top team in the nation and rose to powerhouse status after claiming seven consecutive national championships from 2007 to 2013. Now, on the West Coast, another Concordia is rising in the rankings.
The Concordia Eagles in Irvine, California, officially entered the AVCA Coaches Poll for the first time in their brief DII history on Oct. 31 at No. 25 after receiving votes each previous week of the season. They have climbed the rankings steadily each week, landing at No. 22 in the latest poll. That is quite the impressive feat for a program in just its second full season in Division II.
The Eagles came from the NAIA, having won the Golden State Athletic Conference in each of their last four seasons of NAIA play, including a National Championship in 2012. They began their transition to DII in 2014 as a provisional member of the PacWest Conference before making their full-season debut last year. The results were very uncharacteristic of what Concordia had become known for, as they finished 14-15.
“Last season acted as a motivator for our team,” junior outside hitter Rachel Flynn said. “We are a group of very competitive, passionate girls and not doing as well as we had hoped last year sparked our fire for this season. From the beginning, winning conference was our goal, and we have worked everyday with that same goal in mind."“Last year, because we were so new to the conference, I think we just didn't know what to expect going in,” senior libero Taylor Dennison added. “We would get close in games and then we would just give up the fight. We were going through other transitions as well, including changing up our style of play and practice according to the new coaching staff. Paula Weishoff was very determined to make us great, and we just had to trust. So when we realized just how good we are, combined with the senior leadership and solid summer preparation, we came into this season guns blazing. I think that comes with maturity and confidence.”
Paula Weishoff may have made her Eagles’ DII debut at the helm last year, but she is no stranger to Concordia volleyball. Weishoff coached the Eagles from 2004 to 2008 and is the winningest coach in Concordia history behind a 160-48 record before she jumped to Division I in 2009 and coached UC Irvine for six years, leading them to a 22-8 record in her first DI season. After returning to Concordia to lead them in the program's inaugural year in DII, she had the daunting task of keeping this team focused on the future, despite knowing that they would not be eligible for the NCAA postseason until next season.
“One of our goals that we set in stone the very first days we met this season was that we were going to win conference,” Dennison said. “Would it have been easy to give up because we couldn't pursue a national championship? Sure. However, [the seniors] wanted to set the bar high and establish a legacy for the incoming classes for future years. Even though we were limited to what we could do, we still wanted to destroy the conference, establish a presence in the NCAA and show other teams that we weren't messing around. The team chemistry and having the same goal is truly what kept the drive throughout the season.”
They certainly dominated right out of the gate. The team swept through the Labor Day Classic as well as the GNAC/PacWest/CCAA Crossover Tournament reeling off ten consecutive wins to start the season. They would drop a game to Dixie State and lose another to PacWest favorite California Baptist in early October. They haven’t lost since, avenging both losses, most impressively, away from their home court.
“After losing to Cal Baptist and Dixie State, it was clear that we all had the same mindset.” Flynn said. “Our team has amazing chemistry, and I believe this is because we all have the same goals in mind. Losing to those two talented teams did not discourage us but motivated us more to work everyday in order to come back and beat them on the road.”Flynn was named the PacWest Preseason Player of the Year after earning All-PacWest First Team honors in her first DII action. The former GSAC Freshman of the Year helped to lead a balanced attack this year that has seen Concordia top the PacWest in opponents hitting percentage, assists, kills, and blocks as well as opponents assists and kills.
“Being named the Preseason PacWest Player of the Year was very honoring because of how many talented girls are in this conference,” Flynn said. “That being said, I did not think about it too much during the season. As a team, we have always focused on playing for each other and having the goal of winning conference. That motivation made it easy to forget and just play.”
The Eagles have a two-game lead over Cal Baptist in the PacWest with just two games remaining. Though Dennison and her fellow seniors may graduate never seeing the NCAA tournament, they have started this program’s DII tenure in the right direction, hoping to raise a PacWest banner after Saturday’s season finale.
“On our senior night this past weekend, I mentioned to the underclassmen that I hope the seniors set a standard for the way that we play,” Dennison said. “I hope that we inspired them and pushed them everyday to get better, so they will do the same to the incoming classes. We hope that they will be just as welcoming, strong and determined for the future Eagles. That is the legacy we hope to leave. The seniors worked so hard and went through some adversity throughout the past four years, but the fact that we stood together, strong and confident regardless of any situation, is something I hope the team continues to carry on.”