Concordia Volleyball NCAA
Journal - Road to the NCAA Playoffs
Note - This journal is being written by Jim Cella, the Concordia College Sports Information Director, who has the privilege to tag along with the Cobber volleyball team and coaching staff as they make their way to the NCAA Regional Tournament in La Crosse, WI. The intent of this journal is to give readers an inside look as to what goes behind the scenes of an NCAA Division III athletic program. A different viewpoint than just the box scores and statistics as a group of athletes gets ready to compete on one of the most prestigious stages in all of college athletics - the NCAA Tournament.
The views written in this piece are entirely of the writer and not meant to harm or disrespect any of the athletes or school. It is merely an attempt to give the reader a greater understanding of what the coaches and athletes have to go through to get ready to perform at the highest level. I hope you enjoy the journal.
November 11 | Wednesday, November 12 | Thursday,
November 13 | Friday, November 14 | Saturday,
November 15 | Acknowledgments |
Tuesday, November 11
5:30pm -- The bus is already in the parking area waiting for the team to load. The players begin to straggle on, loading their bags and worrying about last minute food items and gifts that they received from friends and fans. Each player gets on the bus and the familiar ritual of finding their customary seat begins. The players are in a spirited, but hectic mood. Less than 30 hours ago, they were celebrating their first conference playoff championship title and now they are about to embark on a journey that will linger in their memories for a lifetime. In that two-day-plus time frame, they have had to make arrangements with their professors, to make up for another few days of missed class time, get caught up on the studying they have been procrastinating on during the playoffs and find time to spend with family and friends that want to relive the moments of the past weekend. The phrase, "so much to do, so little time" has never been more true than in the postseason of any collegiate sport.
Head Coach Tim Mosser and his assistant of four years, Bob Jones are the last ones to get on the bus. Mosser has spent a very frantic day trying to orchestrate all of the team's travel plans, hotel accommodations and practice schedule. He has done all this while spending 2 1/2 hours on a conference call participating in the conference coaches meeting. Unable to attend in person he was forced to tend to the league's business by phone. Despite having a large chunk of time taken away from his day, he has managed to coordinate all the necessary plans and make sure that the team fits in a pre-trip practice. He gets on the bus and hands everyone an itinerary of the following five days that, hopefully, will take them to the elite eight of the tournament.
The life of a coach in the NCAA Division III level is a constant struggle to keep up with the many tasks that the school places upon the individual. It is the purest form of multi-tasking that a person can find. Mosser does an incredible job of juggling his teaching duties (he is a professor in the math department), the never-ending battle of recruiting and making sure that his team is in top form and perfectly prepared to play at the collegiate level. He also finds time to volunteer at church activities and to promote spiritual well-being by going on the road and becoming a one-man motivational, volleyball playing guru. He is the epitome of what a college coach at the DIII level should be - someone who gives completely of himself to his players, the school and his community. Concordia is extremely fortunate to have Tim as the head coach for volleyball. He has always been an Sports Information Directors (SID) dream - very proactive and always willing to help out when times get stressful.
7:20pm-- The bus pulls over in Alexandria for a food and stretching break. The 90-minute trip has been made excruciatingly longer by the viewing of one of the worst bus ride movies of all-time. One of the bonding periods that teams go through is their travel time to and from games. The down time is usually spent watching movies, studying and - as of late - talking on the cell phone. The selection of movies is usually left up to one of the older players on the team - also one t hat is very good at moderating different factions of players that want different types of movies. The initial selection for the NCAA tournament trip is a movie called "Center Stage". It is a dance movie that is heavy on dancing and choreography and very light on dialogue - very light. Bob Jones aptly remarks, "This must have been made during the writers strike in Hollywood!"
Bob makes the perfect compliment to Tim's very excited, always on the go attitude. He is the calming influence on the staff and the perfect liaison between the players and head coach. Rarely do you find a successful coaching staff that does not compliment one another extremely well. Such is the case with Bob and Tim - alone they would do just find, but together they have a great chemistry that allows the players to get the most out of the game.
As we begin the final leg of the first nights trip - two more hours to Minneapolis - a perfect example of the teaching abilities of Bob and Tim arises. As Bob begins to read a volleyball magazine he points out to Tim an article written about hitting techniques at the net. They both agree that it would be a great reinforcement tool for Jacki Barten, the top hitter on the team, to see. Tim walks back to where Jacki is sitting and proceeds to spend a 10-minute discussion on the finer points of hitting and how she can take her game to the next level. Barten is already a three-time all-conference player and has recently surpassed the 1,000-career kill mark. This fine tuning and extra attention is why the team has been so successful this season. The coaching staff has worked together to push the players to a higher level late in the season. They have never stopped teaching and the team has never stopped learning and they are riding a seven-match winning streak and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
9:55pm-- The bus pulls into the hotel and Tim gets off to check everyone in and finally catch up on some rest. The team gets off the bus and very slowly grabs their gear from under the bus. The 30-hour, pergatory period that has taken them from the top of the conference to the beginning of a new level is finally over. They will be able to get a good night's rest, and wake up in the morning with nothing but playing volleyball on their minds.
10:15-- Lights out, time to let the dream continue.
Breakfast is set for 8:30am, and the
team will leave at 9:30am on the final three-hour leg of the trip that
will take them to La Crosse.
8:25am -- The players begin to file into the meeting/breakfast room at the hotel. The meal is simple, muffins, rolls and juice - just enough to tide everyone over for the 2 1/2 hour ride to La Crosse. Mosser and Jones have already set up the room so the players can eat together. For every meal and every get-together the team is always placed so all the players are grouped together. That reoccurring theme will be played out for the remainder of the weekend. Despite having only been with the team for only a short while, I begin to understand why they have been so successful. Most of the players have been through three years of practicing, staying in hotels and playing matches together. Of the 15 players on the varsity roster, 8 are juniors and most of those have started - or played significant minutes - since their first year. They have a great history together and feel free to "kid" one another about past exploits on and off the court. It is the same good-natured, caring humor that you find in a very large family.
Bob Jones and some of the older players decide that today will be "pick on Amy Fitzner day". Fitzner is one of the power hitters on the team and has been a key to the Cobbers' journey into the NCAA postseason. She is teased about being the team's "HM" (High Maintenance) player. The reference never fails to bring a rise from Fitzner and she is always willing to defend every action that has taken place in the past. In reality, the team is surprisingly free from athletes that take a lot of the coaching staff's time or effort. Most are self-motivated and carefree when traveling on the road. Fitzner is no exception. She has been mislabeled with the tag, but the other players take joy in needling her whenever they can.
9:30am-- A few stragglers are still packing their bags under the bus and finding their seats. The attitude has changed considerably since last night. Everyone seems to be ready for the business of playing in the NCAA regional and the air of pre-match preparation is already starting to show. One of the last players on the bus is Kris Sather. Sather is usually one of the last players to get to the bus or show up for meals. Every team has one or two players that constantly fight the clock to be on time and cram everything in before joining the team. As a person that fit into this category, I understand the plight of the habitually tardy. She takes the ribbing about "almost" being on time in stride and settles into her seat to listen to the country music selection of the day.
Sather almost single-handedly pushed the Cobbers into the NCAA tourney. She took control of the MIAC championship match with her devastating jump serve. She rattled off nine straight points in game one and then five more in game two - and more importantly put the fear into the defense's digs and made Carleton constantly change their rotation when Sather was serving.
Sather is from a small town in Minnesota (Fosston) and has five other brothers and sisters. The confidence in her game and easy-going nature seems to stem from her upbringing and her love of her family. She is a very genuine person and very self assured. Having to deal with five siblings will have a stabling effect on a person. On the ride to La Crosse she will tell, with great affection, of how her Grandmother is diligent about having Norwegian food cooked just right. The warmth in her eyes as she tells the story speaks volumes about how she deals with family members and teammates.
12:10pm-- Although the itinerary had the team eating lunch at noon, the normally detail-following Mosser is relaxed about the slight delay. The ride down was spent fighting a sleeting drizzle and high winds that slowed the pace of the team considerably.
Most of the players slept through the ride. They had good intentions at the start, and the majority started to catch up on lost classroom time by reading and studying. After the first 45 minutes, they were unable to fight their sleep deprivation of the past two days and fell into a restful sleep.
Mosser and Jones spent the better part of the drive recapping what happened in the conference meeting yesterday. Mosser spent almost three hours dealing with the year-ending conference meeting. Mosser is concerned with the proposal that the league could possibly play more conference matches. He wants the league to move forward on the national scene so that more teams might have the possibility of playing in the NCAA tournament. This means playing more regional opponents and teams that are nationally ranked. Like every move that Mosser makes, his decision is rooted in what will be good for the whole conference and the student/athletes.
The team gets their first taste of La Crosse, Wisconsin - a town that sits right on the Mississippi River right across the border from Minnesota. The rain has given way to a slow snowfall and the temperatures are colder than when they left Moorhead. Despite the gray day, the team is upbeat and loose. They continue to tell stories and joke with each other throughout the meal. Fitzner continues to get roasted on her special day. Jones and teammates, Jacki Barten and Danielle Schmiesing, relate the story of how Fitzner drank most of a community strawberry shake on a recent road trip. Jones orders a strawberry shake and asks everyone, except Fitzner, if they would like to have some of the ice cream. The team gets a good laugh about the reference and Fitzner is left to defend herself one more time. Once again she takes the joking in good form. She even finds time to steal some of Jones' shake!
1:15pm-- The team checks into the hotel where they hope to be staying until Sunday. The accommodations for the NCAA playoffs are considerably nicer than during the season. The players revel in the fact that they will be able to stay two to a room and that the hotel has a spacious lobby, dining area and rooms. The happiness in their attitude is fun to see because they are being rewarded for a tremendous season that has brought the team and, more importantly, the college some terrific publicity. The media coverage in the past week has been tremendous and more importantly to a small college - at no expense (Unless you count the endless hours of training, film sessions and road trips).
2:50pm-- The one-hour practice session has just begun. The team arrived at UW-La Crosse and was promptly met by a member of the athletic staff that will serve as the team's liaison for the tournament. The team listened as they were told all about the procedure that will take place on-site. All their eyes were focused on the representative and they respectfully took in every word. It didn't take long for the team to realize that they were suddenly playing. Like a stone being thrown into a calm lake, their playful nature slowly cascaded into a business-like focus.
Throughout the 60-minute session, Mosser and Jones employ the players to "breath and relax". The expected tension of finally facing the task at-hand has put the normally loose and free-flowing team into a state of nervous pressure. Mosser calls the team together and explains how they have to fight through the adversity of the newness of the situation. Some of the players are nursing colds and coughs. Mosser tells them to fight through the little things and be prepared to play at the same level they had achieved during their last seven matches. He finishes by using the mantra that the court is the same 30' x 30' that they have played on throughout the season.
The rest of the practice is played at a more normal flow and pace. The team prepares for their first round match against Elmhurst, (IL) and goes over a blocking scheme to shut down the Blue Jays frontline attack.
5:45pm-- 24 hours after loading the bus in Moorhead, the team has traveled 390 miles to the base of the mountain that could possibly take them to the top of the volleyball world. But more importantly it has taken them into a special time and place that will be remembered for the rest of their lives.
Dinner is spent at a family-style, Italian restaurant where everyone - including the bus driver - is seated around one big table. Mosser and Jones are the patriarchs that organize players for pictures, offer menu tips and make sure everyone is involved and comfortable. The players talk non-stop and laugh throughout the pre-meal portion of the dinner. Once the meal is served, the chatter slows and the business of fueling themselves before the first big test begins. 20 minutes later the players collectively lean back and rest after a fulfilling meal.
There will be one more meeting before lights out.
8:00pm-- The team is assembled to go
over film of Elmhurst and carefully plan their strategy. All the players
are concentrated and focused on the tactics that the coaching staff lay
out. They know that if they can follow the plan they will give themselves
a chance to win. Players walk out of the meeting calm and ready for the
It is 8:45 and lights out will be in a little more than an hour. None of the players will have to be told to get in their rooms and get their much-needed rest. This is a team that understands what it takes to play at a high level and will let nothing push them off their anticipated path deep into the playoffs.
Another night away from home, another step closer to the goal of a national championship. In 20 hours, the team will either be solidly encamped on the foot of the NCAA mountain or on their way home to remember all the great times of the season.
Three nights in La Crosse never sounded
8:30am-- The day starts on a positive note - the sun is out, and the dreary weather of yesterday has given way to clear skies and a crisp morning.
Breakfast is being served in the eating area and the players come down from their rooms to start one of the biggest days in the history of the Concordia volleyball program. Right away you can sense that the feeling of urgency has taken over most of the players mindsets. The first round match against Elmhurst is eight hours away, and everything they do from now on, will prepare them for the test at hand.
In spite of the impending seriousness, there is always to pull pranks and share a laugh. Today the honor goes to junior setter Jessica Walden. "Wally" or "JW" as the team and staff are want to call her, is the rock on which the team is anchored. In her junior year she has already set the school record for assists in a career. She has made the transformation from a wide-eyed freshman that was in awe of the college game, to a player that controls the entire offense and can pick apart the best defenses in the nation by getting the right matchups at the net. She is also one of the designated mothers of the team. She deals with team meal orders, and is the team representative that the coaching staff always counts on to organize the rest of the players.
As JW sets her plate down and goes back to the buffet for her drink, Bob Jones quietly slides her plate away from her place and out of sight. Walden comes back and immediately looks at Jones and the other players seated at the table and gives them a "I know you took my plate so give it back - now" look. Jones hands over the plate and shares the story of how Walden was the recipient of a hidden pie prank. Before one of the matches during the year, the team ate lunch at a restaurant that also sold pies. After finishing their meal, some of the players bought pies for the ride home after the match. After the match and before "JW" boarded the bus, Jones and junior Jacki Barten hid Walden's pie. Walden got on the bus and couldn't find her pie, and was immediately irked because she had been looking forward to the pie since the finish of the match. Now she was on the bus and had no pie. She proceeded to walk up and down the bus and ask every player - "Where's my pie?" "Who stole my pie?"
The hook of the whole story is not in the actual line, but in the way all the players can expertly mimic Walden's voice as she became more and more irate.
After several minutes without the pie, the team relented and gave the pie back to its rightful owner.
As the story is told, Walden becomes more and more embarrassed until her face is a colorful shade of red. The players seated around the table are in stitches by the time Jones is through with the tale. Fitzner has paid her dues, Walden is officially on the clock.
9:30am-- Back on the bus and over to the arena for a match-day practice session. One of the inside things that you learn about a team is their multiple nicknames for each other. Leading the way in that department is first-year hitter Amanda Levos. Levos (pronounced lee - vos), goes by Levi, Leever, Levee, Lovus, Lever 2000, Lyle (as in Lovetts) and a host of other take-offs on her last name. She kids that when she goes home, and her mom calls her by her real name of Amanda, she doesn't respond because she doesn't know who Amanda is!
10:00am-- The team is back on the court for a pre-match walk through. Most of the practice session will be spent on walking through the offensive tactics that will hold the key to a Cobber win. The players are even more tense than the day before. Mosser spends more time in the practice pulling the team together and reassuring them that they were meant to be there and that they have played the game many times before. They understand that they are playing their best volleyball at precisely the correct moment of the season. They know they can be confident and self-assured.
I continue to be amazed by the team's ability to focus and block out outside distractions. At one point during one of Mosser's talks, a pair of workers are putting the final touches on the arena for the first day of competition. They are making quite a racket as they try to complete their task. I immediately look over to see what all the commotion is about. I glance back at the team huddle and notice that not one player has broken their concentration from Mosser. Most teams and coaches would have stopped their talk all together until the workers had finished.
It's just one more reminder of why this team is playing at this level and has achieved so much during the year.
After 56 minutes of the delegated 1-hour practice time, Mosser brings the team in one last time and tells them to look around. The players gaze at the empty arena and Mosser tells them that this is a place where they will achieve great things, a place that will become their home and that will help them grasp their goals. You can see it in their eyes, they believe that they can go farther than any other team in school history has ever ventured.
1:00pm-- The team eats a light, pre-match meal of subway sandwiches, crackers and Powerade drinks. The mood is considerably heavier and there is not much chatter. As the players finish their meal and start to leave another moment strikes me. Before each player leaves, they throw their trash in the garbage and say thank you to Mosser and Jones. It wasn't just a handful of players but ever single player. They each took the time to say thanks to the coaches for getting the meal. They continue to take nothing for granted and are always appreciative of every gesture. Whether it be a held door or a small favor, the players always say thank you.
2:30pm-- The bus leaves for the arena. The talk is minimal and turns towards the opposing team as each player goes over the defensive rotation and Elmhurst's tendencies. You can hear players reciting numbers and offensive slides when they are forced with a situation. The team is focused and very well prepared.
2:40pm-- The team arrives at the arena and is met by their representative. All the personnel at the college have been amazingly nice and have helped make the whole weekend an unforgettable experience.
Mosser heads off to a pre-tournament coaches meeting as the team makes their way towards the lockeroom for their final preparations. Jones is left to sit by himself and wait out the agonizing moments before warm-up. Jones agrees that this is always the hardest part of game day. He usually reads before the match, but today he sits and watches as the traffic in the arena shuffles by.
Jones does an incredible job in helping Mosser in all aspects of the program. In addition to his volleyball duties, he works in the school's admissions department. His hands-on involvement in recruiting has paid dividends for the program. Not only does the team have a talented group of juniors, they have also added to the stable by adding a group of first-year players that are acting as understudies before they get their chance to shine on "center stage". Jones is in his fifth year with the program and is one of the key reasons the Cobbers have returned to the NCAA tournament. As stated before, he is the perfect compliment to Mosser. He keeps the team loose and acts as one of the chief pranksters for the group. He played collegiate volleyball at Chapman College in California. He cut his coaching chops as a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming and then as an assistant at NCAA Division II power, North Dakota State University. He is a master at team tactics and acts more as an associate head coach. He is the first one in the huddle during timeouts during a match and always gives Mosser the insight into what the opposing team is trying to accomplish.
3:30pm-- Showtime!! The players take the court to begin their pregame routine. Their pensive atmosphere has been replaced by enthusiasm and energy. They go through their choreographed routine that takes them right up until match time. They size up Elmhurst as they warm up and get ready for the biggest match of the season. They leave the court five minutes before match and then make a grand entrance. The two teams enter the arena from either side of the court to the accompaniment of music and cheers from the faithful following of parents, family and friends.
4:30pm-- The match begins and both teams are tight and commit early match errors. Concordia is able to pull away early in the first game and give themselves a 1-0 lead - and the all important momentum. In playoff matches, the team that wins the first game holds the upperhand in the match, and forces the other team to constantly play with their backs to the wall and under constant pressure.
Elmhurst rallies to take game two. In the pivotal third game, the teams jockey for position to make a late-game run. At this level, it is the equivalent of two runners pacing themselves for the late-race kick to put the other competitor out of the race. They want to position themselves to make a mini-run and then put the game away. Concordia accomplishes just this, as they go back and forth - sizing up the Blue Jays in the middle stages of game three. As the match hangs in the balance, the team seizes control by pulling together and playing just enough offense, and more importantly, in-your-face defense to put the game out of reach. They take the 2-1 advantage and place Elmhurst at the brink of elimination.
The Blue Jays respond by coming out strong in the fourth game and trying to repeat their second-game success. Concordia responds early and catches them mid way through the game. With the score tied at 11-11, the Cobbers use a balanced attack to rattle off a string of six points. This puts the game, and the match squarely on the shoulders of Elmhurst. Unable to respond, the teams trade points until match point at 29-26. Another kill for the daunted Cobber frontline and the school's first-ever NCAA tournament victory is safely secured. The heroes of the match are not the premiere players, but the role players that form the backbone of the team. Danielle Schmiesing and Rhiannon Grimm keep the Cobbers in every game throughout the match with their stellar, defensive play and occasional offensive outburst.
I've learned that every successful team has players that sacrifice their own best interests for the good of the team. The Concordia volleyball team is no different. For every Barten, Fitzner and Walden, there is a Nelson, Gilbertson and Maasjo. Players that rarely see the bright lights of stardom, but push everyone in practice and cheer the team on from the sidelines. As much as the team would not be successful if the starting players did not play well, the team would be even worse off if the "team" players decided to become "me" players instead of "we" players.
First-year players Rachel Nelson and Emily Gilbertson are a perfect example of the "we" attitude. They take statistics during the match and play hard in practice. They never receive any accolades or press but always have a great attitude. Nelson is the team's Wheel of Fortune expert and has a voracious appetite - which is hard to believe because of her size. Gilbertson is rarely caught not smiling and laughing, and is always there for the other players on the team. The pair are waiting their turn and are very happy with making other players better - a coaches dream at any level.
7:15-- After nearly five hours at the arena, the team arrives back at the hotel to relax and wade in the memories of the record-setting victory. Walden takes everyone's pizza order and makes makes the call to the pizza place. She gets the money from the coaching staff and takes care of the entire order. A pie-eater's job is never done!
The team will rest and then have a late
breakfast. By 10:30pm the hallways are empty and the rooms are quiet. The
team has made the first trek up the mountain and are secure at their first
encampment. One match down, two to go - the dream still intact.
Friday, November 14
Life on the Rollercoaster!
9:30am-- The luxury of winning the first round match is getting to sleep in. Once again the mood has taken a dramatic change from the day before. While the team was tight and apprehensive during yesterday's breakfast, they are very relaxed and back to the loose group that was present throughout much of the season. They are slowly becoming experienced postseason players that understand what it takes to get ready to play in the big match.
The parents for the team have come down for the weekend to show their support, and root on the team. Like most teams at Concordia, the parental support is enthusiastic, and knows how to give the coaching staff and the players their space.
After last night's win, the parents had put together a make-shift hospitality suite in the room of Rick and Jo Fitzner. They were very excited and could be heard from one end of the hallway to the other. The parents take on the form of a roving band of gypsies during the season. People who were total strangers before their daughter's started playing for the college, are soon very good friends that spend an inordinate amount of time together. They end up carpooling to games and making travel plans to stay in the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants. As much as the players will form life-long friendships with their teammates, the parents will also expand their group of friends to include fellow parents and the other players on the team.
The players come into the eating area while their opponent from last night, Elmhurst, is just finishing their breakfast and making their way to the bus for their ride home. It's an awkward moment because if the players met at a different time or place they would probably sit and talk, but since one team has just ended the other team's season, the mood is more somber and edgy. Both teams reach their destination and the Concordia players start to enjoy the morning meal after their record-setting victory.
I have the pleasure of sitting and eating the meal with Jeff Berg, the father of Sheena Berg. He is very outgoing and makes an outsider feel very comfortable from the first moment. Like most parents, he has to juggle a job and the rest of the family (the Berg's have one other daughter) in order to make time to watch each match. You can tell he thoroughly enjoys the support he is able to give his daughter and the pride he takes in the team's accomplishments. Genuine and thoughtful players usually have genuine and thoughtful parents as a role model. The parents for the volleyball team prove that point perfectly. It is not hard to see why these players, this team, is so successful and mature beyond their years.
11:40am-- Another match, means another practice and tactical session. For the third straight morning, the team travels the five miles to the arena to have a run-through before tonight's semifinal match. Once again the players focus their attention on the opposing team's tendencies and things they will have to do to be successful. There is a calmer atmosphere in the arena and Mosser keeps the team on-task by repeating the word "opportunity". He tells them what a great opportunity this will be, and how they have to remain committed to working hard and being mentally prepared to seize the opportunity.
The practice lasts the allotted one hour and the players file out to the bus.
3:20pm-- Today was unlike the previous two days because there was a lot more down time. The players had a chance to study after practice. Although most of the players tried to pour over the pages of reading materials and get caught up on missed class notes and papers, their thoughts were certainly on the upcoming match and the chance to get to the next level.
This time the pre-match meal is more of a sit-down affair as the team goes to a restaurant to eat. One of the hardest things for a coach is the constant planning that has to be done in order to make sure that the players get the "right" food and that the team is happy with the selection of food. The coach also has to organize the meal with the manager of the restaurant so that the team will get fed and back on the bus as quick as possible.
After finishing the meal, the team heads to the arena to scout the other semifinal match. Mosser once again utters the word "opportunity" as the team is getting off the bus. He repeats this several more times to help the team gain the right perspective. The squad breaks into groups to record statistics and tendencies of each of the other team's different players. You can tell that this is a practice that has been played out many times before. Like a well-instructed drill unit, the players find clipboards stat sheets and file into the arena.
Mosser and Jones sit together and dissect
each of the possible opponents in the final. They constantly talk about
the strengths and weaknesses of each of the teams, and try and predict
what plays they will run out of timeouts and at other key moments of the
match. I am amazed at the ability by both coaches to know exactly what
the two teams will run and who will make the kill attempt.
Jones has his scouting-match ritual meal of popcorn and soda.
6:20pm-- The team takes the court for the start of warm-ups. The game will be delayed by almost 20 minutes because of the length of the other semifinal. As they take the floor, the team once again has been infused with energy and emotion. Once again the choreographed warm-up is played out on both ends of the court. You can tell that this is a step up in competition from the way that the UW-La Crosse handles themselves in the warm-up period. The Eagles are ranked eighth in the nation and they have a confident aura. They are tall and determined. This will be a much tougher match than last night.
7:20pm-- The player introductions are over and the teams are ready to go. The arena is a lot more crowded, as the UW- La Crosse is playing in front of their home crowd. Each point they make is met with a loud cheer. Concordia digs a deep hole early. They lose the first game of the match on a late-game run. You can tell that the Eagles are very good at setting their opponent up in the middle of the game and then exploding by them in the late stages. Not only are the Cobbers up against a very good opponent, it seems that all the helter-skelter points and bounces are going in favor of UW- La Crosse. An arm stuck out in desperation here, a backwards pass from outside the court there and all the breaks are sitting on the side of the Eagles.
Late in the second game, Mosser begins to change his lineup in order to stop the frontline of UW-La Crosse from blocking all the kill attempts of the Cobbers. They have also been very successful at hammering the ball down in the center part of the court. The move temporarily pays off as Concordia is able to trade points with the Eagles. The younger players of Lindsay Sipma, Amanda "Lever, Lovus, Levee" Levos, Bethany Kost and second-setter Nicole Maasjo slowly stop the bleeding for the Cobbers and start to pull the team to a higher level.
UW- La Crosse eventually takes the second game and puts Concordia's collective backs securely against the arena wall. One more loss and the terrific, record-breaking season would come to an end. Buoyed by the play of the understudies, Concordia pulls ahead late in game three. Maasjo is setting the frontline for easy winners, Andrea Dressel has come on to serve very well and stake Concordia to several mini-runs. She is also diving around the back court to dig balls off the floor and negate any would-be kill attempts. Sipma, Levos and Kost are getting good hits down and Jacki Barten has stepped up her play to form a wall at the net.
La Crosse takes a timeout trailing by one at 28-27. Immediately after the break, the Eagles win the point and gain the momentum. The crowd starts to cheer louder as they sense the overall victory. Concordia braces for the onslaught and does not show the look of fear. They look poised, ready to seize control - a long way from the middle of the season when they played very tentatively and lost a pair of road matches. The Cobbers win the next point and gain the first game point. La Crosse counters by coming up with another middle kill and the game is tied at 29-29. Concordia answers with a kill of their own and puts the Eagles at game-point one more time. Another kill by the formidable frontline of La Crosse and the game is tied at 30-30. You can sense that the Eagles will not be denied and want to finish the match in three straight games. They answer with another frontline kill and suddenly Concordia is staring directly at match point. The crowd is on their feet and they are clapping in unison, begging their team to finish the match.
The ball is put in play and the Cobbers scramble to gain control. Off an errant pass, Jessica Walden is forced to set the ball just behind the onrushing Barten. She has already timed her jump and she will have to readjust in midair. Like the three-time, all-conference performer that she has become, she very smoothly reaches out and tips the ball over the ne- and the block - and the ball falls helplessly to the floor. Match-point averted, score tied, Mosser and Jones breathe a collective sigh of relief. The team has once more shown their character, heart and determination. They have extended the match against a nationally-ranked top-ten team in their gym, with their crowd behind them. The crowd goes silent and the teams prepare for the next point.
Rebecca Shane gets a good set from Walden and she puts the ball to the floor for a winner. Suddenly Concordia is staring at game-point number three and have a chance to extend the match to a fourth game. The serve is put in play and La Crosse makes an attack error. Point Cobbers, game Cobbers, deafening silence. I sit and watch as the team jumps up and down and prepares for the next game. If you could bottle one moment and then have the players open the bottle at the end of the school year, or even 10 years down the line, to show them how much they had achieved and how exciting the game can be - that would have been the moment. The crowd was stunned, the nationally-ranked opposing team had their mouths hanging and Concordia was suddenly back in the match.
Game four started like a nightmare for Mosser and the Cobbers. La Crosse ran off the first five points and then pushed the lead to 11-5 and 17-11. The Eagles had taken the body blow from Concordia and responded like a champion. The Cobbers were once again fighting for their season. This time, however, their was no magic left and the season came to an abrupt end at 30-23.
You are never prepared for the end of the season. It always comes suddenly and always feels like someone kicked you in the stomach and you can't get your breathe for a split second. The players and coaching staff know that it is coming, they understand that the season must end at somepoint. They know that only 1 team out of the 408 teams that started the season will finish the year the way they had planned. For the other 407 teams, the end is always sudden and always final.
As a coach or parent, there is nothing you can say to make the players feel better, They will adjust on their own time and react in their own way. Some players cry, other players mope, some wander around in a dazed state and still others act as if nothing had happened. There is no one better way to show your anger, sorrow and frustration.
The Cobber players are no different. In the hallway, some players are crying, others are just staring into space and others are huddled together talking. Luckily for this team, it is not the last match of anyone's career. They will all have at least one more season. The parents make their way over and hug, or pat the players on the back, and tell them how proud they are.
They slowly wander towards the bus and for the first time in four days, the team is silent, reflective. The five minute drive to the hotel seems to last for an hour. Everyone is looking straight forward, not wanting to think of putting the gear away and waiting the nine months until the beginning of next season.
9:55pm-- 6 hours and 35 minutes after the team boarded the bus for the pre-match meal, they are back at the hotel. The atmosphere has once again changed. The players are allowed to eat with their families or get a pizza.
The season is over, the bus will leave at 8:00am for the six-hour drive home. Everyone, including the parents and families, look exhausted. The emotional high and long battle of playing 34 matches has finally taken its toll.
As I make my way to my room, the scene from the movie "Parenthood" goes through my mind. In the scene, the Grandmother is seated at the kitchen table. She is mumbling away and refuses to get in the car with the rest of the family. When pressed about what she is trying to say, she replies that she always loved the rollercoaster and didn't care much for the merry-go-round. She liked the ups and downs, and highs and lows, that the rollercoaster would bring - and wasn't thrilled with just going around and around at the same pace all the time on the merry-go-round. She didn't see much point in just going around and around. She finishes the scene by saying that "life is like that".
Never has that scene been so true. The Concordia volleyball team has just spent the past three months on one of the most exciting rollercoaster rides they will ever experience. Although the team has just got off the ride at a low point, hopefully they will come to realize how much fun the ride has been.
The ride is over, but it has been better
than going around in a circle - much better!
What a Long Strange Trip!
7:45am-- Most of the players are coming down late to breakfast so they can grab a quick bite to eat and then get on the bus for the 8:00am departure. This morning they are a lot more groggy, and you can tell they have stayed up late to talk over the weekend's experience - and to relive all the great memories of the season.
The table of Andrea Dressel, Sheena Berg, Bethany Kost, Nicole Maasjo and Rebecca Shane are talking about going to the restaurant last night and getting their picture taken at the world's largest six pack (a series of six grain storage units painted like a six-pack of beer - remember this is Wisconsin). They take great joy in revealing the great lengths they took to set the automatic timer on the camera, and then risk life and limb by running across the street in time to have the picture taken. They also relate the story of how they were given the wrong directions to the location of one of the town's premier tourist attractions. The looseness with how they have opened up to a complete stranger is comforting. It is nice to see that they still have an inherent trust in people. They trust that they will not be taken advantage of, and the truth will not be blemished. It is a great quality to possess, and hopefully they will keep it throughout the rest of their time at Concordia and throughout their chosen career.
The bus is slated to leave at 8:00pm but two rooms still have not checked out. Amy Fitzner and Jacki Barten struggle to make it to the lobby. They enter and immediately begin to explain how their alarm clock on their cell phone did not properly wake them up. Tim Mosser is still rechecking the hotel bill and the two quietly slip onto the bus. Mosser finishes at the desk and then is told that the room of Jessica Walden and Danielle Schmiesing are still not on the bus. The other players call the room and tell Mosser that the pair will be down shortly as they were sound asleep. Consequences would be paid if this occurrence happened during the season, but since it is the morning after a heart-breaking loss, Mosser lets them get by with just a stern look.
8:20am and the bus finally rolls out of the hotel parking lot. The skies are overcast, and as the city of La Crosse fades from sight, it is time to face the harsh reality of having to catch up on studies, and get back to the mundane life of becoming a regular college student once again.
9:40am-- Art, the bus driver, pulls over to a truck stop in Rochester as the battery light has suddenly lit up and the voltage meter begins to dip. He wants to take a look at the problem before we get outside of Rochester and away from a bigger town that could deal with a mechanical failure. Mosser and Art head off to the back of the bus to look at the engine while several players head into the truck stop to get a bite to eat. Walden comes back on the bus with a pair of string cheese packages and proudly exclaims that they were on sale for 2-for-$1.00. String cheese - the breakfast of champions!!
After a good 40 minutes, and several cell phone calls to the parent bus company and the local bus company, it is decided that the problem is probably a broken alternator. Thankfully the local company has one in stock. The plan is to have the bus drop the team off at the mall and then go to the bus garage to replace the busted part. Mosser decides to stay with the bus in order to make sure that everything gets squared away - and that the bus will be ready for the five-hour journey home. Since Bob Jones stayed in La Crosse with his wife and young daughter to enjoy some much-needed family time together, this means that I will be left to watch over 15 volleyball players in a shopping mall. After the initial shock settles down, I persuade myself that this will be a good chance to get one last story for the journal.
10:15am-- The team is dropped off at the main entrance to the shopping mall in Rochester. Within minutes the team has scattered like a flock of birds that is chased out of a tree by a nearby predator. After walking through the first entry way I can no longer see anyone on the team. My immediate thought is how I will tell Tim that I lost the whole team in the first five minutes after entering the mall. I walk around the mall and comfort myself by knowing that this is a team that is very grounded and very responsible. After an hour, I see several of the players milling about in the main concourse. They are visibly bored and the heaviness of the situation has finally registered. They begin to understand that they might have to spend another night away from campus. If the bus is not able to be fixed then a replacement will have to bedriven down from Moorhead. They ask if Tim has called with any word and I can only shrug and say "no".
Mosser calls within five minutes and says that he thinks the bus will be at least another hour - at least. I gasp and sit down in the store where I had been browsing. Best case scenario is that we leave before 12:15, the worst case is still lingering. I relay the word by cell phone and each conversation is met with a calculated sigh and a "not so happy" response. Like me, they are becoming fed up and want to get the trip over with.
11:50am-- The team meets in the food court for lunch. They continue to ask about any updates and I can only tell them about what Mosser had explained in his last phone call. The team sits together and shows off some of the few purchases. The biggest news is that two members of the team, Emily Gilbertson and Nicole Maasjo, have gone ahead and had the top of their ear lobes pierced. Several more members decide that they want to have the same procedure done, and finish their lunch and head off to the piercing store. Luckily Mosser calls within 15 minutes and says that the bus will be ready in another 20 minutes. He wants everyone rounde up so that they can be ready to go once the bus pulls up.
Once again the word goes out by cell phone and the fragmented groups begin to come back to the eating area. Junior Jacki Barten is visibly depressed since she was next in line to have the top of her ears pierced, when they were summoned to come back for the bus. She finally had gotten up the nerve to have this procedure done and now it has passed by.
Barten is one of the premiere players in the league. She has been named to the all-conference team every year that she has played at Concordia. She has also passed several milestones during the year and is the type of player that a team can be built around. Despite having achieved all the accolades and being one of the "stars" of the team, she remains very level-headed and just another player on the team. She is free from the ego that usually goes along with a player of her caliber and delights in springing jokes and pranks on her teammates. She also has an easy-going air about her that puts teammates and other people at ease.
One of the see-through qualities that she does posses, is her love of needling her teammates. She is the "Robin" to Jones' "Batman" when it comes to teasing the other players and playing practical jokes. She is always there to collaborate the story of how one of her teammates was embarrassed or did something particularly hilarious. Throughout the entire four-day journey, no one ever came forward with a Jacki Barten story. I sense that she is genuinely nice to all the players, so they really don't have anything bad to say about her. At the same time I believe that they know, if anything would be told - the retribution that would occur would be more than they would want to live through.
She is one of the reasons that athletics at the Division III level is so rewarding. The chance to coach, and be around, players that could have sold themselves for a scholarship in order to show people how important they are by playing for a Division I or II program. Instead, she has chosen to play at a smaller school and receive a first-class education that will serve her well after graduation. She will leave the program with her passion for the sport flamed, not diminished, and she will look to give back to the school and sport whenever she can.
1:30pm-- The bus finally arrives and
the players quickly find their seats and brace for the final leg of the
trip - hopefully.
After spending 3 hours and 15 minutes in a shopping mall in Rochester, Minnesota, the end is in sight. The team decides on a much better movie for the the first leg of the trip - Charlie's Angels. The movie is a suspension in reality, just like the past three hours. Things that you didn't think were possible, happen and the best you can do is to sit back and enjoy the ride.
The second part of the double feature is the best movie of the trip. Armageddon is put into the VCR as the bus rolls through St. Cloud. The team is becoming more and more restless. You can sense their feeling of wanting to be at home and see friends they haven't hung out with for days. The movie comes to an end as the bus pulls into a rest stop in Fergus Falls. The sound of tears being wiped off cheeks is audible, as are the the sniffles that go along with a particularly emotional ending. It is as if the players are letting go of the season - and starting to get on with the rest of the school year. This will be the last time that the team will show emotion as a group.
One more stretch of road to go. The team is giddy and frazzled as the final 30 minutes of the ride go by. Any comment or movement by a player is met with thoughtless laughter. The players need to get off the bus and find the comfort of their rooms.
7:20pm-- The bus finally pulls into the parking lot at Concordia - at last the journey is over. Everyone cleans the bus and then departs and unloads their belongings. In a matter of moments they have all gone their separate ways. A very anticlimactic ending to a very satisfying journey.
As the doors close shut behind the last player, it is easy to see why this team has molded themselves into one of the best teams in the country - friendship and caring. They have shown what it takes to play hard, have fun and truly enjoy the company of a teammate and a friend.
7:35pm-- After almost 12 hours on the
road, on a trip that should have taken six hours, the long strange journey
is over - until it starts again in 273 more days!
I want to thank Tim Mosser, Bob Jones and the entire Concordia volleyball team for allowing me to tag along and record their thoughts and actions. I hope I did not portray anyone in a bad way (especially you Rachel!) - as all the players were very nice and are tremendous assets to the school and their families.
All the parents can be very proud of how they have raised their children. Their daughters have a great deal of respect for each other and for every person that they come into contact with - a quality that is sometimes missing in today's society.
I also wish that all the professors and administration at the college could have the opportunity that I had, so they could see how vital a healthy athletics department is for a college. The student/athletes that go through the various programs are walking ambassadors for the college, and they are a direct link to the outside world and how they perceive the school. In the four days that the team spent on the road, there was not a single person that wasn't amazed by the dignity and class that the coaching staff and team showed. Strangers always asked what college the team represented - and the team was always proud to say "Concordia".
The amount of publicity and positive public perception that the program generated can not be measured. When people have the misconception, and unfortunate bias, that athletics and athletes set a bad example for the rest of the school, it is a very sad day. It is on the same plateau as gender and racial bias. It is something that is not understood because of ignorance. I am proud to say that I work in the athletic department. I am not a professor or high ranking administrator - I am a low level coach and dispenser of information regarding the world of Concordia athletics. I am more blessed and satisfied than any tenured professor or highly acclaimed, published scholar.
I deal with the future of the college, community and world on a daily basis and are truly a better person because of it. I get to interact with every type of student and every level of education and economic background. I have the best position on campus and would never trade it for the world.
Time to step off my soapbox and get back to my everyday world of statistics, rosters and game day programs.
Thanks for taking the time to read this journal. I hope it has given you an appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes of a successful college athletic program.
I would also appreciate, if you would drop me a line and let me know what you thought (good and bad), and if there is anything else you would like to see on the site. I can be reached at: email@example.com.
Thanks again, and enjoy the holidays with the people you love.
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