The Minnesota Duluth vs. Concordia-St. Paul rivalry has been nothing short of special over the past 20 years, including some friendly pokes at the head coaches of the programs.

That included UMD students wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts to tease the laid-back approach of Concordia’s Brady Starkey. Then there was an ingenious Golden Bears fan who would show up early to the Gangelhoff Center in St. Paul, see what UMD coach Jim Boos was wearing, scoot across Interstate 94 to Target to buy the exact same outfit, then return in a white shirt and tie and clipboard and sporting dark, bushy eyebrows.

Yes, this rivalry is fun, and it’s really good.

Despite its nine NCAA Division II championships under Starkey, No. 4 Concordia-St. Paul finally evened the series at 28 wins apiece Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, with a 3-2 (23-25, 25-19, 17-25, 25-21, 15-9) NSIC victory over No. 22 UMD before 626 at Romano Gym.

Despite the loss, the Bulldogs were buoyed by the performance, as this is a team that has dealt with inexperience and injuries this season.

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“That was a lot of fun,” said UMD outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka, who had 17 kills to lead the Bulldogs. “We knew it was going to be tough today, so we had to play the best we’ve ever played. We came out strong, and even though we lost, we were proud of how we played. That was the best we’ve ever played, for sure.”

Selbitschka, herself wearing a wrap on her right hand due to a sprained thumb, continues to carry the offensive load for UMD while senior Kate Berg, who had shoulder surgery in December, works her way through it.

Starkey a no-go

There were all kinds of storylines in this one.

With it being “Mental Health Awareness Day,” players for both teams wore temporary tattoos of green ribbons and there were mental health-related messages and ribbons sprinkled around the gym.

Noticeably absent on the Concordia bench was Starkey, who took the weekend off with a “stomach bug,” according to his longtime assistant George Padjen (for those wondering, and in this era, everyone does, COVID tests were negative).

Padjen has been with Starkey since Starkey was hired by the Golden Bears in 2003. Padjen previously served as an assistant volleyball coach at St. Scholastica under Dana Moore from 1999 to 2002.

Padjen said he and Starkey have never seriously considered making the jump to NCAA Division I. At Concordia, things are well-rounded, where they’re part of a high quality volleyball program without being slaves to their job.

“Concordia is the perfect fit, and our conference is so fun,” Padjen said. “This was like every night in our conference. Jim Boos and Christyn May have run a good program since I’ve been at Concordia, and there’s nothing more enjoyable than this.”

Boos wins 500

How good has UMD been?

Boos notched his 500th win in a come-from-behind victory at Sioux Falls last week. After returning home to play Minnesota State-Mankato Friday, UMD assistant coaches honored Boos with a commemorative ball and announcement.

“I’ve been surrounded by a lot of great people,” Boos said of the 500 wins. “It makes you reminisce about some of the great players and athletic trainers and strength and conditioning people who helped get them prepared and out there ready to compete. It just makes you really appreciate all the great things that have occurred. It’s a little overwhelming, honestly. We both (Concordia and UMD) have had a lot of great people and players.”

And while Romano certainly was far from packed like the good ol’ days, it’s getting there.

“I was really pleased with the crowds for both matches this weekend, and it makes you really appreciate what we’ve missed here with not having a season last year,” Boos said. “Great environment and great competition back and forth.”

UMD (10-5 overall, 3-4 NSIC) came out swinging in the first set, leading by 7-2 and 10-3 margins before Concordia chipped back into it but could never complete the comeback.

Concordia (13-2, 7-0) pulled away late to win the second set and UMD was in control from start to finish in the third set. The Golden Bears set the decisive tone by jumping ahead 7-3 in the fourth set and never looked back.

Stay aggressive

UMD finished with 12 service errors, but like Boos pointed out, most of those occurred when UMD was winning.

“I loved the energy we came out with,” Boos said. “I love how we executed early in the match, but unfortunately at crunch time, they ramped it up a notch and played at a higher level and we kind of resorted back to being a little more error-prone, and they took advantage of it.

“You can’t lay off the pedal and allow a team like that to be in system and run their offense comfortably because if you do, then you’re eating the ball anyways.”

Speaking of “eating the ball,” there were a couple classics Saturday as defensive players took spikes off the noggin, kind of the equivalent of getting “posterized” by a dunk in the NBA, and UMD won a couple entertaining long volleys as well.

Jasmine Mulvihill, the American Volleyball Coaches Association NCAA Division II Freshman of the Year in 2019, paced Concordia with 12 kills while Kennedy Brady added 11 kills and an impressive nine blocks. Tori Hanson, the only senior on Concordia’s roster, led all players with 22 digs.

Summer Ballard had nine kills for UMD and Grace Daak, UMD’s 6-foot-3 middle blocker, had eight kills and six blocks. First-year setter Madison Gordon paced the offense with 39 set assists and Sydney Lanoue (16 digs), Gordon (14) and Selbitschka (13) led the defense.

“We’re very up-and-down right now, but when we are up, it looks like this,” Selbitschka said. “We’re not going to hang our heads after an effort like that, and it’s a confidence booster that we can compete with anybody. We never gave up.”