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Eagles Make Noise in DII Play

July 01, 2018 - 7 minute read

CUI men's volleyball players bowing their heads for prayer before a game

Eagles teams roared into full competition in their new conferences in NCAA DII this year, and two teams— softball and men’s volleyball—blew away expectations with historic seasons.

CUI men's volleyball player raises fist in the air in celebration

CUI men's volleyball player celebrates

For some volleyball players, it was personal.

“The emotions are always high when you play big-name schools [like USC, Stanford and BYU],” says returning senior Chandler Gibb. “We came in with a chip on our shoulder, con- fident that if we played our game we’d come out on top. That was our big goal, to show that Concordia wasn’t some school to be forgotten about. We showed that we could beat big teams, and beat them at home and away. It was awesome to come into the conference and leave our mark so quickly.”

Prior to playing for Concordia University Irvine, Gibb was a third-string setter for a volleyball powerhouse in another state, but was told he wasn’t good enough to start.

“I had a feeling the program didn’t value me,” Gibb says. Frustrated, Gibb “quit with no intention to play volleyball again,” he says. But his dad suggested he talk to Concordia Irvine about transferring. Five days later, Gibb packed his car to the roof and drove across the Southwest to join the Eagles and help lead their successful season. That included beating his former team at an away game in front of nearly 4,000 fans.

“I was so grateful just to come and play,” Gibb says. “I wanted to put myself on the map as a setter and show I was good enough to do it.”

His teammate Jake Weiser ’18 overcame adversity of a different kind—a broken back and an oversized ego. The Huntington Beach native was a talented jump-server and outside hitter until he fractured his spine in two places in high school. After months of recuperation, he returned to volleyball, but as a libero—a less-flashy role that initially didn’t satisfy his expectations.

“Libero plays a pivotal role on a team but doesn’t get the recognition from the crowd that an outside hitter, middle or opposite gets,” Weiser says. “You’re basically a supporting player.”

Gone was the glory of hitting winning shots. Weiser “had to learn the mentality to be a libero since you’re not that star getting the kills,” he says. “It was definitely a struggle. I had an ego as a kid ’cause I was always top dog. So going to where I wasn’t top dog was very humbling. It was extremely good for me. It made me a much more selfless player.”

Weiser embraced his new role and became an encourager to teammates who were struggling, and the guy who “hyped them up to have a good game,” he says.

He played so well this season that he won two coaches’ awards—the Erik Shoji Libero of the Year award, and a Volleymob All-American Third Team honor—as well as being named second team all-conference.

“I’ve gotten so used to being the guy who goes under the radar all the time that getting recognized now is a little weird,” he says. “I’m not used to it.”

What made it so historic is we were beating teams with a full full-time staff, lots of money and endowed scholarships, and we did it in our first year in this conference.

The volleyball team surprised nearly everyone in their new conference, the Mountain Pacific Sport Federation (MPSF), which combines DI and DII schools. Pre-season polls predicted that Concordia University Irvine would finish last in the MPSF. Instead, the Eagles came up big against USC, Stanford and BYU, beating USC both home and away, topping Stanford in front of a home crowd, and besting #2-ranked BYU on the road. Concordia University Irvine then hosted the quarterfinals, sweeping fifth seed Grand Canyon and earning a spot in the semifinals against second seed UCLA.

A high point was topping USC in their home arena, and besting CSU Northridge, a top ten finisher in the nation, at home and away in five- and four-set thrillers. The keys were adding position coaches, learning to win on the road, and playing well in the “red zone” beyond 20 points when top teams know how to close out games.

The season ended in the semi-finals of the MPSF tournament with the Eagles winning a set against UCLA before dropping the next three.

Gibb, one of the smallest setters in the nation at just 6’ 2”, was named second team all-conference, and made the elite all- tournament team along with players from BYU, UCLA and USC.

Hunter Howell, a junior middle blocker from San Diego, was named All-American honorable mention by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Howell was strong on defense and offense, with 202 kills and 124 blocks, including a team- leading 15 solo blocks. Outside hitter Jonathan Predney became the all-time best point scorer at Concordia University Irvine. Weiser aims to make the U.S. Pan Am team roster this summer.

On the softball diamond, coach Crystal Rosenthal ’02, MCAA ’07 led the team to a PacWest title—a remarkable feat given the high level of competition within the conference this year. “Our sights were set on competing in the post-season,” says Rosenthal.

CUI softball team huddle

CUI softball team huddle

But that ambitious goal seemed out of reach when the team slumped in the month of March.

“Crystal told us we had to win every game from there on out if we wanted a chance at the post-season,” says Ryann Ferguson ’18, who played four years in the outfield and as the lead-off hitter.

Something sparked, and in April the team reeled off an amazing 17-game winning streak.

“Our offense came alive, and our pitching carried us as they did the whole season,” Ferguson says. “I can’t put a finger on what happened but we hit our peak. When we started clicking as a team and winning games, you kind of feel invincible.”

In Rosenthal’s words, “Everything caught fire in April.” They went 24-2 that month and clinched first place in the conference.

“It was a huge deal to win conference, and to be selected to host the first round of the post-season regional tournament,” Rosenthal says.

The biggest thing for me these four years is not even softball-related but how much I’ve grown as a person. Coach Crystal preaches that she’s paid to be a softball coach but the biggest thing is to develop us from young ladies into women.

Pitching was a major part of their success. Freshman Callie Nunes was named a First Team Division II All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, and named the 2018 Schutt Sports/NFCA Division II National Freshman of the Year. She was one of the best pitchers in Division II this year, and one of the best in Concordia and PacWest Confer- ence history. In 41 appearances, she finished the season with a 0.74 ERA, shattering the PacWest single season record and finishing second in the nation. Her eight saves—second best in the nation—set a Concordia single-season record. Nunes also finished third in the country in strikeouts with 291 and second in strikeouts per seven innings with 10.7. Opponents hit just .129 against her, and she threw two no-hitters. She was named PacWest Pitcher and Freshman of the Year.

“I never expected to win the awards,” Nunes says. “It’s been a completely humbling experience. Athletically to socially, the overall vibe of team was absolutely amazing. It was positive all the way through.”

The Eagles (46-14 overall) landed a postseason berth after winning the PacWest regular season title, and hosted the West Region Tournament for the first time in school history. All this in their first year eligible to compete in DII’s post-season.

For Ferguson, the best part was growing as an athlete and a person. The power hitter wasn’t always comfortable as a lead batter and at first “was kind of scared of the pressure,” she says. “But as the years progressed I knew that if Crystal wanted me to be that, I would do my very best to be the best lead-off hitter I could.”

Ferguson already loved “getting in that box and seeing the ball fly,” and spent countless hours in the batting cage learning to be “a hard out to get,” finding a way to get on base any way she could —with a hit, a walk, or as the result of an errant pitch. Her confidence bloomed off the field as well.

“The biggest thing for me these four years is not even softball-related but how much I’ve grown as a person,” Ferguson says. “Coach Crystal preaches that she’s paid to be a softball coach but the biggest thing is to develop us from young ladies into women. I’ve grown from being a shy, super- introverted girl to being okay with speaking in front of a bigger group and not getting frustrated or selfish if I’ve gone 0-4 [at the plate]. That’s a huge thing I’ll take with me.”

We had a ton of alumni and staff and faculty support at our games, which I hope we can duplicate in the years to come.

Ferguson’s performance this season earned her a spot on the All-PacWest Team, and the West Regional Team along with teammate Kailey Palazzolo. Ferguson hit .529 over the Eagles’ first ten games, maintaining a .356 average over the season, and racking up 49 runs, 72 hits, 103 total bases and 16 stolen bases, leading the Eagles in each category.

The biggest team accomplishment was hosting the first round of regionals. The Eagles went 2-2 in post-season play, losing twice to Dixie State by one run each time. “Not only did we have a season to be proud of, but this was the most competitive year the PacWest conference has ever had in softball,” Rosenthal says. “We had a ton of alumni and staff and faculty support at our games, which I hope we can duplicate in the years to come.”

The team looks strong for the future, with 18 players returning and just five seniors graduating.

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