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Tara Callahan's return for super-senior season at Concordia goes beyond chance to lead Bulldogs back to NAIA tourney
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STATE COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL

Tara Callahan's return for super-senior season at Concordia goes beyond chance to lead Bulldogs back to NAIA tourney

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Midland at Concordia volleyball, 9.30

Concordia's Tara Callahan (4) sets the ball in the second set against Midland in a 2020 match in Seward.

Tara Callahan doesn't know exactly where she'd be right now if she stuck with the original plan.

She was thinking about it, though, about a year ago. Maybe she'd be in the swing of graduate school or working in the real world.

When the NAIA offered its student-athletes an extra year because of COVID-19, the opportunity to return to Concordia for a fifth year of volleyball became another option.

Callahan went home for Christmas break to talk to her family about it, but it was advice from Concordia's strength and conditioning coach that set Callahan up for one more go-round in Seward.

"'Someday when you look back and you have kids and they're trying to make a decision kind of like that, you'll be able to tell them that you had no regrets and you took every opportunity that was given to you,'" Callahan recalls Todd Berner telling her. "That was actually a very big part of something that convinced me to come back."

Callahan is glad she did, and so is her team.

Her return meant the Bulldogs had a five-year starting setter back in the fold.

What's that like?

"It's awesome," Concordia coach Ben Boldt simply said. "I didn't want Tara to come back unless I felt it was right for her. When we had that conversation, she sat us down, Angie (Boldt's wife and assistant coach) and I, and looked us in the eye and said, 'I'm not done playing.'

"That statement to me has stuck, and I really think she loves volleyball, she loves her teammates and this is the best way for her to express herself through that."

For Callahan, it meant having a chance to continue to pilot the best stretch in program history. She was a junior when Concordia reached the Round of 16 in the NAIA Tournament for the first time. A year later, she and a veteran group took another monumental step in reaching the NAIA quarterfinals.

Concordia this year is 16-7, and after finishing runner-up in the Great Plains Athletic Conference Tournament will be making its fourth NAIA Tournament appearance in five years. The No. 19 Bulldogs will host Ave Maria (Florida) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Seward.

Midland's Leimbach named GPAC volleyball player of the year

After earning all-conference first-team honors the past two years, Callahan racked up 1,016 assists, 264 digs, 32 blocks and 27 aces in 103 sets this fall. She ranks No. 2 in program history in career assists (4,675).

"I knew that I personally wasn't ready to be done playing, and looking at what this team was going to look like this year, I was really excited to see what we could do," said Callahan, who was named to the all-GPAC second team. "I knew there was going to be something here for this team that was going to make us as great as we have been in the past."

Callahan has seen firsthand the Bulldogs' rise under Boldt, who is in his fourth season at the helm. The Brady graduate was a freshman when Concordia went 9-19.

A player-led culture led to a turnaround, Callahan said. The Bulldogs were 15-12 in 2018, 25-8 in 2019 and 18-5 last year.

"I've said it a million times, having that year without them (Ben and Angie Boldt) and then being able to experience the rest of my time with them is unreal," said Callahan, who was the only Concordia senior from last season to take advantage of the extra year. "I am more grateful for them than anyone on campus."

When Boldt watches Callahan play, he sees a player with veteran moves, as he calls them. Still, there are always things to be learned, Callahan says, even as a five-year starter.

She had to adjust to some new starters in the lineup and a midseason tweak to the offense that got the ball rolling for Concordia, which has won seven of nine matches heading into the NAIA Tournament.

On and off the court, Callahan has adapted and evolved. But what stands out the most to Boldt is his super senior's leadership, her love for her teammates, and it coming at the right time.

"She wouldn't have come back, I don't think, if she didn't have something that she wanted to give," Boldt said. "Kind of leave a legacy for the underclassmen."

Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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