Concordia soars to impressive heights

Dan Fisher's cell phone still starts with area-code 808, even though he moved from Hawaii to take the women's volleyball coaching job at Concordia University several months ago.

He really hasn't had time to do much of anything other than coach, virtually hopping off the airplane and landing in his new digs at the Irvine campus just in time to meet his players, the administration and get started.

The Eagles had a remarkable season, going 18-0 in winning the Golden State Athletic Conference and rising to the No. 1 ranking in the NAIA poll.

They won a record 36 matches in a row, the streak coming to a disappointing end in the national championship match, a four-set loss to the University of Texas-Brownsville on Dec. 3 in Sioux City, Iowa.

Now, just a week after the season has ended, Fisher can relax a little, though his head is still spinning.

"As a competitor I probably need a little more time to fully appreciate the season," said Fisher, who left his job as associate head coach at the University of Hawaii to coach at Concordia. "Certainly coming in I wouldn't say we had low expectations, but I didn't know what to expect. We were all kind of in the same boat together, with a new staff, a new team.

"As we were progressing throughout the season, it became pretty apparent we could do something special."

Along the way, the Eagles had plenty of big wins, beating No. 3 Azusa Pacific (three times), No. 5 Point Loma, No. 6 Fresno Pacific (twice) and No. 10 Vanguard.

But the win that really vaulted the Eagles to the top, both in the national poll and in their minds, was the win over Texas-Brownsville, No. 1 at the time, on Oct. 29.

From there, the Eagles breezed through the rest of the regular season and won their first five matches in the national tournament, setting up a rematch with Texas-Brownsville in the national final.

"I'm still trying to figure everything out," Fisher said when asked what went wrong in the championship match. "The simple answer is we couldn't slow down their middles as effectively as we would have liked.

"The [match] we played here we won, but the games we won (in five sets) were very close and the games they won they kind of blew us out. They're a very strong team, certainly stronger than us physically. They're the kind of team that when they get up, they play really well."

As time separates Fisher from that final match, he'll feel better about the season. But now, it's still too fresh.

"On the whole, it's tough to be anything but proud of this group, what we did every day in the gym," he said. "But at the same time, as a competitor, there's a side of you that thinks about that match and gets you sick to your stomach.

"It's not easy to get into that situation and you want to take advantage of the opportunity, but it didn't happen for us this year."

Despite falling short of a national title, the season was an overwhelming success, and it is reflected in the postseason awards handed out to the Eagles, who finished the season 37-2.

Fisher was named the NAIA and American Volleyball Coaches Assn. Coach of the Year, but he was quick to give credit to his assistants Trevor Johnson and Lindsey Campbell. Brooke Marino, a junior opposite hitter, was named the NAIA and AVCA Player of the Year.

Fei Gao was named NAIA second team All-American and first team All-GSAC, Reanna Schelhaas was All-GSAC and Madison Ekis was an NAIA all-tournament selection.

"What went right for us was two main things," Fisher said. "We worked really hard in the gym, and also, I said from the beginning, it was a true team in every sense of the word. There was very low drama, the girls got along and the problems we had we handled pretty quickly.

"It was a very balanced attack. A lot of times, especially in the NAIA, a team has one or two big hitters they set all the balls to. But everyone on this team was a capable attacker. We had a lot of well-rounded players."

Marino, though, stood out, becoming the second Concordia women's volleyball player to win the national Player of the Year award, joining Raquel Ferreria (2004).

"From day one, she impressed me as a person," Fisher said. "And the first time we got in the gym, you could tell she had a quality arm. She probably could have been in a little better shape and wasn't jumping great, but she's not unlike the other players on the team. They're all very coachable and everything you'd ask of them, they'd absorb."

In fact, Fisher decided to move Marino, a lefty, to the left side of the court, even though lefties typically would play on the right side.

"She was Player of the Year, but the impressive thing was the first month of the season her numbers weren't very good," Fisher said. "It was a big adjustment for her and at some point she really settled in well. She was very deserving of the award."

Fisher and his team set the bar high for next season, especially considering that there were no seniors on the team and that everyone is expected back next year. But Fisher is quick to warn that sustaining success is not automatic.

"I'm sure it's on everyone's mind to go all the way next year," Fisher said. "I'm not sure I believe that's something that's totally in our control. If we come in the gym every day and work as hard as we did this year, we'll have a good year and we'll put ourselves in position to make a run at winning a championship.

"I told all the girls it's going to be harder next year, we're going to have to fight off complacency and people are going to be gunning for us. We know it's going to be a tough year for us next year, but at the same time, we'll be up for the challenge."

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