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Concordia athletics continues to grow

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When Ryan Land made the big move from Eugene, Ore., to Irvine to play baseball at Concordia University, he did so with boldness.

He was aware there could be a bit of a culture shock, and he definitely knew he had to meet new people since he would know no one when he arrived.

Still, the Concordia senior baseball player had no idea what was in store.

“There have been a ton of changes,” Land said. “It stayed awesome throughout. It’s only gotten better.”

Land is a rare senior when you consider all those changes. Concordia is in the third and final year toward becoming an NCAA Division II program after years of being in the smaller NAIA.

During the transition process, Concordia, a private Christian college, cannot compete in postseason competition, but it can capture a conference championship, since the Eagles are now a part of the Pacific West Conference.

When the process is complete, Concordia will be the lone NCAA Division II university in Orange County.

“That’s a drawback,” Land said of the Eagles’ zero postseason participation for three years. “But a lot of college athletics is about the relationships you build with the teammates and with the whole athletic department. I know that’s the way it is with me. It’s a bummer we can’t go to playoffs. But I know that the goal is to win the league that we’re in.”

Land, a biology major who was recently accepted into dental school in Portland, Ore., is among approximately 450 Concordia student athletes. The school offers 20 sports.

Land is a baseball player who typifies Concordia athletics: small, but he packs a big punch. And he won’t give up.

Land, an outfielder, stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 170 pounds.

“I play with a chip on my shoulder,” Land said. “People look at me, and they count me out. I take it as a challenge. Baseball is the one sport that height isn’t everything. I knew with the skills I had I could have some success. I learned to use that to my advantage.”

Land learned about Concordia through his father, Bryon, who played baseball with former Eagles head coach Mike Grahovac at Chapman University.

Joe Turgeon, who was an assistant for seven years at Concordia, took over as coach last year.

When Land visited Concordia, he said he took a tour and fell in love with the small school right away.

“It’s been a great place to go to college,” said Land, who described a family like atmosphere. “There have been great opportunities for me here.”

Eagles ride ‘Mo’

“Mo” is short for Maurice, as in Mo Roberson, the Concordia University athletic director. But “mo” is also short for momentum, something the Eagles have as they continue to show great competitiveness during their provisional status on their way to becoming fully accepted as an NCAA Division II program.

“We kind of feel like we see the finish line,” Roberson said. “We’re almost there.”

Roberson is the leader, but he knows to give credit to the coaches and administration during this transitioning process. Everyone is helping.

He started at Concordia in August 2013. He came from Cal Baptist, when it was on the path to becoming an NCAA Division II program after years of competing in the NAIA. Now Cal Baptist is on the verge of becoming NCAA Division I.

Roberson took a lot of what he learned while at Cal Baptist and applied it to his work at Concordia.

“It’s been very collegial,” Roberson said of the process. “The transition is not just for the athletic department. It’s really as an institution. There are other departments that had to make transitions and put systems in place. If we think about how we admit students, that was affected by the NCAA move. Also, how we give financial aid, and even academic advising.”

During their first year of the Eagles’ provisional status, they played against NAIA competition. The second year featured a combination of NAIA and NCAA Division II opponents. The final year has mostly NCAA Division II opponents and some NCAA Division I.

Some scheduling has been difficult; established NCAA Division II teams don’t really want to face the new kid on the block.

“Because if we beat them, then they don’t look that good,” Roberson said. “It’s really hard to play Division II schools in the region. We do believe we are in the premier conference out in the west.”

Concordia wants to be the best of the best.

Eagles step up

Concordia’s women’s volleyball and men’s basketball teams have certainly helped the Eagles reach their goal of being an elite NCAA Division II program.

Concordia won five national championships in the final five years of NAIA competition, including baseball, men’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men’s volleyball and softball. The Eagles finished seventh in their first year of the PacWest Commissioner’s Cup race, which rewards the top athletic program determined by all sports. They are in second for that cup after the fall.

The men’s basketball team, which won two national championships in the NAIA, tied for first place in its first year of PacWest Conference play.

The Concordia women’s volleyball team captured the PacWest Conference championship outright in its first season in the league.

“It was bittersweet,” Concordia women’s volleyball coach Paula Weishoff said of winning the PacWest Conference championship but then not being able to compete in the postseason. “You don’t get a lot of chances to win the championship. It was the last year of the three-year cycle, and we just said, ‘Hey we are going to do this, and now you can leave a legacy.’”

Weishoff has coached at different levels, leading the way at NAIA Concordia for five years before going to coach at NCAA Division I UC Irvine and then back to Concordia, where she is in her third year.

“I love the people here and I love what the school represents,” Weishoff said. “I wake up every morning and it’s like all your friends are here.”

Weishoff admits recruiting will be a greater challenge after winning the PacWest in the Eagles’ first year. She knows the other teams in the PacWest, some of whom were also from NAIA (Azusa Pacific, Cal Baptist and Point Loma Nazarene), will be even more aggressive in their recruiting efforts.

“Recruiting is a beast now,” Weishoff said. “It gets harder each year. I’m out all the time.… We won it right off the bat, so now we have to work harder.”

Concordia men’s basketball coach Ken Ammann said he doesn’t see that much difference in his recruiting efforts. Ammann, an Edison High alumnus who played at Stanford after transferring from Santa Ana College, has always gone after the best. The Eagles have always recruited a high-caliber basketball player who performs well academically, he said.

Ammann continues to have lofty goals for the Eagles.

“My goal when I took over in 2002 was that we would be a national contender in the NAIA, and we won two national championships and we were the first from the [Golden State Athletic Conference] to do that,” he said. “Our goal is now the same: to be a national power in NCAA Division II.”

Ammann remains excited about the future, which will include a renovation of the gym later this year.

A new day for Eagles

Frankie Wade-Sanchez, a senior at Huntington Beach High, said she is excited to play women’s basketball for Concordia University.

She said she chose to play for the Eagles so that she can be a part of history. The first Concordia women’s basketball team to win a PacWest championship? That will definitely be a goal.

“That was something that made my decision easier, to be a part of something so big,” Wade-Sanchez said. “I love that I could put in the work with them and hopefully we can go far.”

Wade-Sanchez landing at Concordia makes sense for her and for the Eagles, who are making a strong effort to reach out to the Orange County community.

They want to capitalize on their building effort that will make them the only NCAA Division II university in Orange County.

steve.virgen@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveVirgen

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