You might expect an athlete who's just finished her college career by winning a second straight national championship to kick back and bask in the glory of it all. But Maria Steinhagen said it's not that easy for her and her Concordia volleyball teammates.
"We feel really good right now. But we were brought back to reality this week because it's the week before finals," Steinhagen said. "So we really enjoyed it for a couple days, then we had to get back to work."
The only other senior on Concordia's volleyball team, Whitney Meierotto, agrees that balancing academics and athletics became more challenging as the team neared its goal of a repeat championship.
"It starts out pretty easy but then everything kind of builds up," Meierotto said. "Last week it was nationals and I know I didn't do very much homework, so now it's all piling up."
But all the work the volleyball players put in on the court is appreciated on the campus of Concordia, a small, private liberal arts school that was founded by the Lutheran Church.
Concordia is tucked into a residential neighborhood of St. Paul, just off Interstate 94. Sitting with friends in the student commons this week, Blake Ogletree looked up from his laptop to confirm that the team generated a buzz on campus.
"It's a pretty big deal," Ogletree said. "I think a lot of people recognize them and it brings some national attention to our school. We've got a lot of friends on the team, so it's kind of cool to watch them win back-to-back national championships."
The university's president, Rev. Robert Holst, is more effusive in describing Concordia's embrace of its champions.
"It was mind-boggling," Holst said.
Holst illustrates the point by noting that the school moved a long-scheduled holiday event to accommodate the volleyball fever that swept through campus.
"The choir concert was scheduled for 7:30 on Saturday night. And our students said 'What if our volleyball team is playing for the championship at 7:00?' So they requested of the Fine Arts Department, 'Could you move the concert up to 6:00 so we could go to the ball game?' Have you ever heard of that at a university?" Holst said.
Such a move is feasible in part because of Concordia's small size. Holst said the official enrollment is more than 2,000, but if graduate and online students are subtracted, there are fewer than 1,000 traditional students. Concordia competes in an athletic conference with the state universities in Saint Cloud and Mankato and the U of M's Duluth campus, all of which have enrollments over 10,000 students.
But the Golden Bears hold their own, especially in volleyball. The program's success under Coach Brady Starkey has earned Concordia a sterling reputation in volleyball circles and has helped attract students such as Steinhagen, an art design major from Alexandria.
"Without volleyball, I don't know if I would've heard about Concordia at all," said Steinhagen. "So I'd have to say it was the reason for coming here, because I don't think I would've heard of little Concordia otherwise."
Coach Starkey said Concordia benefits from the fact that Minnesota is a hotbed for high school volleyball. Thirteen of the team's 14 players this year were Minnesota natives. The exception is Meierotto, who is from Washburn, Wisconsin. She said Concordia is a good choice for players who are skilled, but may not have the size to play for the region's premier college team at the University of Minnesota.
Meierotto said many U of M players tower over her. She said she knew that if she were to play for the Gophers, it would only be in the back row, and never in front of the net where the tallest players dominate.
"I kind of had to make a decision in high school if I wanted to play back row, which I could do at a higher level, or play all around," said Meierotto. "I don't think I would've been happy just playing back row, so I really made a good decision."
Coach Starkey is happy with the success of the team, which includes five All-Americans and the national Player of the Year, junior setter Maggie McNamara of Zumbrota. But he's perhaps more happy about the academic accomplishments of his players, noting that the volleyball team's grade point average hovers around 3.7 or 3.8. President Holst also boasts of that GPA, and said he thinks it adds to the team's success.
"You always worry about injury but you don't have to worry about academic eligibility. These are not 2.0 students or 1.9 students that are going to be ineligible or flunk out," Holst said. "When you're 3.8, you know you're going to be around to play for four years."
Concordia will hoist its new national championship banner in a ceremony between the women's and men's basketball games at its athletic facility, the Gangelhoff Center.