Senior-to-be Tara Callahan and her teammates are quite determined not to let the current situation halt the momentum of a Concordia University volleyball program on the rise. Throughout the 2019 season, the Bulldogs had a good thing going that nobody wanted to see come to an end. In the midst of a virtual second half of the spring semester, Callahan tweeted, “I miss my team more than ever.”
The sense of team has already carried Concordia to heights it had never before reached. Last year’s success on a national level was unexpected from outsiders. The surprise breakthrough campaign leads into one of the most anticipated seasons ever for the program. Now try to imagine Callahan’s own excitement level for this fall.
“There’s a physical part to (competing on the national level),” said Callahan of what she took away from last year’s run at the national championships. “But against some of those teams what it really takes is a strong mentality throughout the whole team. Everyone there is talented and they’ve earned their way there. I think the stronger mentality and the better a team works together, the better the results will be in the end.”
Callahan represents a major figure in the return to prominence for the Bulldogs. Since her freshman season, Concordia has gone from nine wins to 15 to 25. Whatever potential the Brady, Neb., native may have left untapped early in her career, she seemed to unleash it last season as a first team All-GPAC setter. Callahan wound up ranked ninth nationally in assists per set in quarterbacking one of the nation’s most efficient attacks.
At 6-foot-1, Callahan brings plenty of height to the setter position. Even as a freshman, Callahan displayed a rare skillset. Up against 14th-ranked Northwestern in 2017, she filled the stat sheet with 33 assists, 12 kills and 11 digs. It was just a start.
Said head coach Ben Boldt, “She’s been on the floor for a good three years now and has a lot of experience. She’s not a typical setter by any means. There’s a certain prototype that a lot of setters look like. She looks more like a middle. She’s tall and she’s big at the net. With who she is and what she believes this program can be, she’s taken it to new levels.”
It’s true that in volleyball the hitters attract much of the glory – and that’s okay with Callahan. She can take pride in the fact that the 2019 Bulldogs had five players with more than 200 kills. The work of Callahan helped make an All-American out of 2019 senior Emmie Noyd, whose 403 kills were the most by a Concordia hitter since 2008 when the number of points needed to win a set went from 30 to 25.
Perhaps more than anything else, Callahan has improved her mental game, a monumental key to success for any setter. The position requires hundreds of split-second decisions to be made each match. Callahan is maturing by the minute, and the current circumstances have only added to her overall perspective.
“Not being around everyone all the time and not being able to get into the gym has made me realize that you don’t just get opportunities handed to you as a player,” Callahan said. “You have to make them now. That really opened my eyes to that self-accountability. You have to stay on top of it yourself. I’ve been fortunate to live with Maggie Durbin and Marissa Hoerman. Us three together can keep each other accountable.”
Such accountable has also been achieved through weekly Zoom meetings and a team Snapchat group that encourages teammates to upload photos of themselves after finishing workouts. Callahan has made use of Coach Todd Berner’s body weight workouts, but misses having Coach Berner there with her. She also looks forward to soon having use of the speed treadmill again. Meanwhile, the team continues to go through mental exercises with Dr. Larry Widman, a performance psychiatrist.
The work Callahan has put in has clearly earned her the respect of teammates. Said Noyd last season, “I give kudos to Tara Callahan. She’s a top caliber setter and I wouldn’t want anyone else in the nation. Having that mentality for our middles to be set early and often has changed the game for me.”
Noyd will be difficult to replace, but Callahan knows she can count on plenty of other experienced teammates. Hoerman is a rock in the back and Callahan will have many weapons at her disposal, such as Arleigh Costello, Camryn Opfer, Kara Stark and Kalee Wiltfong. The familiarity should lessen the sting of losing valuable spring time together. Even so, Callahan would have much preferred a more normal semester.
“I genuinely missed going to class,” Callahan said. “I missed going to practice every day. I missed the spring competitions that were canceled. The main thing I missed was just spending more time with my teammates. We’re getting better individually so it’ll be exciting to see what we put together over the summer.”
Speaking of summer, Callahan is waiting to make too many plans for the next couple of months ahead. She had previously planned to attend Nebraskaland Days in North Platte. Country music artists Toby Keith and Luke Combs had been scheduled to perform. Like many things in life, the concert was postponed. Said Callahan, “That was pretty sad.”
Let that sadness turn to hope. The Bulldogs are preaching the “little things” in 2020. For Callahan personally, she aims to become more of a vocal leader on the court. She expects a lot out of her fellow seniors and looks forward to acclimating the freshmen within the team. Count Callahan among the many ready to dive back into in-person class (though she gave Concordia professors a lot of praise for their handling of the quick transition to online delivery).
There’s just no substitute for the ability to come together as a team. Says Callahan, “Not having a spring season was interesting because we lost that court time, but we still stay in contact really well with each other. I just think that team chemistry will be right there when we come back. I’m really excited.”