There was a funny thing about the gleaming trophy case in the front lobby of the Gangelhoff Center in the heart of St. Paul, Minn. Prominently featured during the summer were three NCAA Division II women’s volleyball national championship trophies—from the 2007, ’08 and ’09 seasons—won by Concordia University-St. Paul. The trophy for the fourth national championship in 2010 captured a year ago was missing.
Not for long.
Once the glaring omission was pointed out to CU athletics director Tom Rubbelke, the 2010 trophy came out of hiding and was squeezed into its rightful place with the others. But this isn’t about hardware. This is about a volleyball program at a university of roughly 2,500 students that in obscurity has matched the accomplishment of Division I powerhouse Penn State.
“We’re pretty proud of it,” says CU nine-year head coach Brady Starkey from his cramped office a floor above the team’s home court. “When we started out with this, we would have been excited to win one let alone four.”
From the moment Starkey was named the Golden Bears head coach—they were the national runner-up in his initial season—the program has been a success story. Going into this season, Starkey’s .919 winning percentage was better than any active NCAA coach on any division level.
So how does Starkey year after year find volleyball players—all but four during his tenure from within the state of Minnesota—whose talent level is somewhere between Division I mid-major (non-BCS football conferences) caliber and D-II.
Here are a few of Starkey’s ingredients for his recipe of success:
FIND PLAYERS WITH HIGH SKILL LEVELS
For players around the net, height helps but it isn’t everything in Starkey’s system. “When we walk into the gym, we don’t overwhelm anybody,” Starkey says. “We don’t win warm-ups frequently.” In Starkey’s opinion, skill level and athleticism rank more in importance than height. The Golden Bears have never had a player listed at 6-feet or taller.
WHEN BREAKING DOWN THE POSITIONS, START WITH THE SETTER
“You absolutely have to have a setter that can set and be able to do so at an early level,” he says. It’s no coincidence Amanda Konetchy, a 5-foot-7 setter who was named the AVCA National Freshman of the Year last year, was the NCAA Division II leader in assists per set (13.09 average). Through 2010, a CU player has topped all others on the DII level in assists per set average for six straight seasons.
FIND PLAYERS WITH THE DESIRE TO IMPROVE
On the recruiting trails, Starkey can’t tell you how many times he’s seen players more talented than his best players at CU. But in Starkey’s opinion, they wouldn’t succeed at CU. Why not? “They’re done learning. They’re not getting better,” he said.
Emily Palkert, a starter on all four national championship teams in the middle, took her game to another level at CU. “I didn’t hear much about Concordia before I came and talked to Brady (Starkey),” Palkert recalls. “I came and talked to him, sat down and that was it.” Palkert was sold. “You just become this player that you didn’t even know you could be.”
SCRIMMAGE FREQUENTLY AT PRACTICE
Starkey believes his teams can’t be great in matches unless they keep pressuring each other in practice through scrimmages. That way, they present themselves with potential match situations. During the season, practically all of CU’s digging and blocking drills are off live hits in an effort to simulate game speed.
“That’s where we could work on high IQ stuff,” Starkey says. “When they’re playing in scrimmages, we can stop. ‘What were you thinking right there? What do you think would have been a better shot?’ Then we can tell them.”
This is one of the biggest attributes to Starkey’s success at CU, yet one that evolved with some help from his wife, Penny. Way back when they teamed up in recreational coed 6’s, she observed that her husband had more of a hockey player’s mentality, i.e. playing with a scowl. “She really pointed out how much my attitude could affect whether we won or lost,” said Starkey who admittedly has backed off since those days. Instead, he tells himself, “Okay, if I can remain calm and cool under pressure, my team is going to reflect on how I act basically…all of those little things that I think make coaches a better coach.”
Southwest Minnesota State volleyball coach Terry Culhane assures you: he hasn’t been beating his head against a wall. But considering how much his program is overshadowed by the success of Concordia University-St. Paul, who would blame him?
In each of Culhane’s seven seasons as SMSU head coach through 2010, the Mustangs made it to the NCAA Division II tournament. Plus, last year they had the credentials to be a NCAA regional host, despite finishing second to Concordia University-St. Paul in the Northern Sun conference standings. So it seemed like all the pieces were in place for a Mustang breakthrough: a home court advantage where they hadn’t lost a match in the regular season, an in-season victory over three-time defending national champion CU and the highest national ranking in SMSU history when the Mustangs reached No. 2 in the AVCA Division II Coaches poll.
But it ended up as another disappointing finish to a 27-4 season. CU’s regular season loss to the Mustangs was its last before running the table the rest of the season en route to its fourth straight national championship.
“There’s a lot of good teams in our conference that get overshadowed because of the likes of Concordia, but that’s what makes it fun,” says Culhane.
Fun until it’s time to go home instead of advancing to Division II’s Elite Eight.
Both enjoyed a Golden season two years ago when the University of Minnesota reached the NCAA’s volleyball final four the same season Concordia University-St. Paul won its third national championship in Division II.
But instead of interviewing CU head coach Brady Starkey to succeed the retiring Mike Hebert earlier this year after 15 seasons as head coach, UM turned—to borrow a common phrase—to another direction.
Laura Bush, an assistant coach for the Gophers the last three years, handles the interim duties this season until USA Volleyball women’s national coach Hugh McCutcheon takes over after the 2012 Olympics.
“I would say it was a very focused search,” says Gopher Senior Associate AD Regina Sullivan. “Certainly Hugh (McCutcheon) has a reputation worldwide.”
Originally published in November 2011