Eagles News
Volleyball - Wed, Dec. 12, 2012
Concordia went 38-8 and won the NAIA National Championship in 2012
Concordia went 38-8 and won the NAIA National Championship in 2012
 

The Concordia Eagles volleyball team accomplished so much and broke so many records in 2011, there was really only one way to do the encore.  An undefeated run to a NAIA National Championship.  Check.

 

In 2011 Concordia earned their first number one ranking in school history, won 36-straight matches, and fell one game short in the NAIA National Championship to Texas at Brownsville.  Concordia made it no secret, returning the same roster in 2012 with the addition of an outstanding middle blocker, their goal was to win that National Championship that had eluded Concordia in their first three attempts (2004, 2008, 2011).

"Our goal the whole year was to get back in the championship game and get another shot at it," head coach Dan Fisher said.  "We never would have imagined it would happen like it did, but it was a really neat process."

Little did the Eagles know, the ride in 2012 would not be so smooth, but title runs rarely are.  Concordia lost hitter Alex Bozoian early in the year with a season ending injury.  2011 All-American Fei Gao missed significant time in the middle of the year and 2012 All-American Madison Ekis played hurt through some of the biggest matches, including the October 25th win over #1 Texas at Brownsville.  The biggest loss came with two weeks left in the regular season, as 2012 NAIA Player of the Year Brooke Marino went down for the playoff run.  Coach Dan Fisher and his staff worked countless hours mixing lineups and trying to win without the school's most decorated player in history.  In the end, every lady on the team stepped up, played better, and accepted new responsibilities they had never handled at any level.  Marino did not disappear to background either, CU's senior leader remained a vocal force in practice, on the sideline, and in her usual post in the center of every huddle. 

"By the end of the season this year we had a full team of really good volleyball players," Fisher said.  "The improvement I saw was impressive and says a lot about the girls' work ethic."

The Eagles set some new records; the bar is pretty high at this point.  They had the most wins (38), most wins in a row (38), and winning percentage (1.000).  2012 was not about the records though, it was about the journey and a team setting the highest goal you can, and reaching it.

When a team goes undefeated, it's natural to look back at all the times it almost went awry.  One thing about these ladies the past two years is certain, when challenged they respond, and as cliché as it sounds, they always find a way.  On September 8th on the road at Westmont, without head coach Dan Fisher who was in the hospital with his newborn child, the Eagles had to come from behind in the fifth set to beat #8 Westmont, who was hungry for the upset win.

The highlight of the regular season was a home game on October 25th, in a rematch of the 2011 National Championship against #1 Texas at Brownsville.  Concordia faithful packed CU Arena in what was the rowdiest volleyball atmosphere most had ever seen.  It was an incredible night, as the match lived up the hype the crowd came to see.  Concordia dropped the first set and had to fight back to win the second set, and a loss would have really put CU behind the eight ball.  Instead CU's momentum carried them to a win in the third set.  UTB came back strong to win the fourth and CU rose to the occasion in front of a delirious crowd to win the fifth set.  The Eagles reclaimed that #1 ranking and would not let it go.

On November 6th, in their first game without Marino, #7 The Master's was hungry for an upset win in Santa Clarita.  The Master's won the fourth set 29-27 and carried all the momentum into the fifth set in front of a crowd ready for a win.  Concordia played calm and well, winning 15-12 to escape with the win.

That Saturday, November 10th, Concordia wrapped up their GSAC schedule with Biola at home for the GSAC Championship.  In a preview of the NAIA Semifinal game, Concordia won the first two sets, just in time for the Eagles from La Mirada to get rolling.  BU won sets three and four, forcing the fifth.  Concordia regained their ground, dominating the set to a 15-8 win and second consecutive GSAC Championship (the second in school history).

On November 13, CU head coach Dan Fisher setup a challenging doubleheader to prepare his team for the final day at the NAIA National Championship.  Concordia defeated two NCAA Division II opponents, Fresno Pacific in the morning and Point Loma Nazarene at night, in the process proving Concordia would be successful at that level.

Next up was the week in Sioux City, IA, with the prize waiting on Saturday, as CU entered as the #1 seed for the second straight year.  Concordia, the #1 team and only undefeated team in the country earned an automatic bid to the 2012 NAIA Volleyball National Championship, marking the eighth trip and seventh straight in school history.  The Eagles defeated Morningside and #13 Georgetown in three straight sets in the first two days.  CU beat #12 Indiana East, the NAIA wins leader, in four sets on the third day.  Concordia rested Fei Gao against IUE to give her fresher legs on Friday and Saturday.

On Friday night Concordia handled #8 Hastings with no problem in three straight sets in the quarterfinals.  Saturday morning brought a familiar foe, Biola, in the NAIA Semifinals.  There are no secrets the third time around and beating a team three times is very problematic.  Just like the game in November, Concordia won the first two sets, looking very strong.  In a rare occasion, Concordia let a 24-21 lead slip away late in third game, giving Biola life.  The fourth game saw CU answer every Biola run and win the set in extra points, 28-26.

Concordia was back in the National Championship on Saturday night, facing a team that had won three titles and was appearing in their eighth championship match, Columbia (MO).  Concordia set the tone in the first set with a 25-19 win.  Columbia came right back to win 25-20 in the next set.  CU trailed 10-8 in the third set with the match and their season hanging in the balance.  Of course they had a response, Concordia pulled ahead 13-11, and even though the Cougars would tie it twice, CU held control of the set to the 25-21 win.  Concordia played a strong fourth set, ready to hold that trophy, and won 25-19.

Dan Fisher was voted the All-Tournament coach and Madison Ekis, Fei Gao, and Jessica Israel were all voted All-Tournament.

Fei Gao leaves Concordia after two seasons in which she went 75-2 with two GSAC Championships.  She brought a level of experience and skill that really propelled the level of the team these last two years.

"It's been an amazing experience from day one," Fei Gao said.  "I've never seen girls work so hard.  Right now everything paid off and I am so proud of our team."

The story for Concordia has been balance.  Brooke Marino is the only Eagle ranked highly nationally in any statistical category.  They had 19 wins over top-25 teams this season.  They were second in the NAIA in kills per game (14.37) and assists per game (13.5).  CU was third in the NAIA in hitting percentage (.29), 17th in blocks per game (2.35), and 45th in aces per game (1.74).  They were second in the GSAC in hitting percentage, first in kills/game, first in assists/game, first in aces/game, second in blocks/game, and third in digs/game (15.7).

Brooke Marino, a 2012 First Team NAIA All-American and three-time All-American, the first in school history, leaves the school as its most decorated player and one of the best leaders any CU sport has seen.  She is a three-time All-GSAC selection and won back-to-back GSAC Player of the Year awards.  She was the 2011 NAIA Player of the Year and a 2011 All-Tournament selection.  In 2012 she was 20th in the nation in aces/game (.52) and 27th in kills/game (3.82).  She was fourth in the GSAC in hitting percentage (.291), second kills/game, second in aces/set, and 13th in digs/game.  She leaves the school as the all-time kills leader at 1545, seventh in hitting percentage (.276), third in aces (185), fifth in blocks (244), ninth in digs (965), and the all-time leader in games played at 456.  In her four seasons she went 129-20.  Marino's impact cannot be measured by statistics solely, as she led the program to heights never seen and represented everything the athletic program and university strives for.

"I've grown so much in four years at Concordia and developed relationships I will have for the rest of my life," Brooke Marino said.  "I can't thank the coaching staff enough for that growth.  Our team matured so quickly and became the team we always wanted to be.  I am so blessed, everything happens for a reason, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to go to this school."

"Leader is the operative word, Brooke Marino is a leader," Fisher said.  "She wants to win and is very competitive.  When she went down, her immediate response was, how am I going to help this team."

Madison Ekis, a 2012 First Team All-American, stepped into Marino's spot after the injury and did a fantastic job playing the full rotation.  Ekis led CU through the transition period and became their #1 offensive option.  Ekis, just a junior, was All-GSAC in 2012 and is a two-time All-Tournament selection.  Ekis was sixth in the GSAC in hitting percentage (.279).  Ekis was fifth in the GSAC in kills/game (3.2).  Ekis had a career high 26 kills against Indiana East in NAIA Pool Play and filled every void her coaches asked of her down the stretch run.  She is already ranked eighth all-time in kills (988) and 10th in hitting percentage (.257) in just three seasons at CU.

"Adversity was great for our team this year," Madison Ekis said. 

Sophomore Reanna Schelhaas is setting quite the path for herself at Concordia and is one of the most talented players to contribute so quickly at the school.  She is a 2012 Second Team NAIA All-American and two-time All-GSAC choice in just her first two seasons at Concordia.  She was fifth in the GSAC with .9 blocks/game.

"It's still so unreal, going 38-0 and winning a national championship," Reanna Schelhaas said. 

Le Mi, or Mia, was the perfect fit to the 2012 team and the only new addition from 2011.  It took her a while to get in the flow with her new squad, but she was outstanding in the middle position.  She was a 2012 NAIA Second Team All-American selection and All-GSAC choice in her junior year.  She was 45th in the country with one block/set and always equalized Concordia against the more athletic attacking teams. 

Concordia finished the season #1 in the NAIA Coaches' Poll, their seventh #1 ranking in school history.  On the season, the Eagles were a perfect 38-0, which is the first undefeated season since former NAIA Member Fresno Pacific (Calif.) was 38-0 in 2009.  Representing the GSAC is Concordia, #4 Biola, No. 11 The Master's (Calif.), and No. 16 Westmont (Calif.).  Concordia has the longest active streak in the Top 25 as it has been ranked for 85-straight polls.

In the end it was a group effort though, as CU was never the most athletic team, but as coach Fisher said, "We just needed to be better volleyball players," and 38 times out they were.  The last two seasons this particular group has gone 75-2 and 32-0 in conference place.  The numbers are hard to believe.  Concordia volleyball was already a national power, their impressive alumni reached that plateau the past 10 years.  The 2012 team raised that bar even higher, to the ceiling, fighting through challenges and injuries to reach that level of perfection.  Going 38-0 to a National Championship through the toughest conference in the country really accomplishes all there is to be desired, and this team deserves to take more than a moment to realize and relish what an amazing season it was.

 

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