Cavalier Farewell: 10 Concordia GNAC Moments
Concordia University will officially close at the end of June after 115 years of higher education and five years as a member of the GNAC.
Concordia University will officially close at the end of June after 115 years of higher education and five years as a member of the GNAC.

Friday, June 5, 2020
by Blake Timm, GNAC Assistant Commissioner For Communications

PORTLAND, Ore. – It was not supposed to end this way.

The shock of Concordia University’s unexpected closure announcement in February caught students, staff and fans by surprise. The hurt of the impending closure was even made more painful when the COVID-19 outbreak ground the sports world to a halt on March 12.

Suddenly what was to be a spring-long farewell for Cavaliers athletics turned into a stunted ending with little closure.

Concordia was the GNAC’s newest institution, beginning conference play in 2015 and earning full NCAA Division II membership in 2016. In the school’s five-year tenure with the GNAC, Concordia provided for some exciting moments and proved that a transition from NAIA membership to Division II did not mean having to wait for success.

Of all the many great GNAC moments in Cavalier athletics, we present 10 hallmark moments as a salute to Concordia’s student-athletes and coaches.

Typically when teams transition from the NAIA level to Division II competition there is a drop in that team’s level of success. Concordia’s women’s soccer program bucked that trend, qualifying for the GNAC Championships in three of its five seasons and the NCAA postseason twice.

But for all of the Cavaliers’ success, Western Washington was not only the class of the conference but of Division II. The 2016 national champions and the 2017 West Region runner-up, the two teams locked horns for a pair of epic finals battles in the 2017 and 2018 GNAC Championships, both of which were played at Concordia’s Tuominen Yard.

In 2017, the Cavaliers brought the Vikings’ 39-match unbeaten streak and 64-match conference unbeaten streak to close the regular season, winning 2-0 in Bellingham on Oct. 28 to secure the program’s first GNAC regular-season championship. In the GNAC Championships final, WWU got its revenge when Gabriela Pelogi broke a 0-0 deadlock with her golden goal in the 104th minute.

The 2018 championship also went to overtime but the Cavaliers matched the Vikings both offensively and defensively. After trading first-half goals, the match went to overtime again before Sydney VanSteenberge tallied the winner in the 100th minute to give the Cavaliers’ the GNAC title. The victory snapped a 13-match unbeaten streak for Western Washington, which had ironically begun after a loss at Tuominen Yard back in September.

“It was a great conference final,” head coach Grant Landy said. “The energy was electric, the stadium was packed and you had two good teams battling it out to the very end. Hats off to Western Washington, They are so tough and physical and hard to break down.”

The win earned Concordia the right to host the Division II West Regional first and second rounds. The Cavaliers bowed out in the second round in another overtime battle with Western Washington, losing 3-2.

Prior to the 2016-17 season, Concordia was not eligible for postseason competition as part of its transition period into the NCAA. That did not stop McKenzie Warren from reaching the highest levels of competition in track and field.

Warren ended the 2015-16 indoor season with the top mark in Division II in the shot put at 55 feet, 3.5 inches. That also ranked No. 15 across all college divisions.

With no chance to qualify for the Division II Championships, Warren’s consolation prize was the U.S.A. Track and Field Indoor National Championships in Portland on the same track used later that March for the IAAF World Indoor Championships. The junior held her own against the world’s best, placing 11th with a mark of 53 feet, 1.5 inches.

It wasn’t the only time that Warren wore the navy and white on the national stage. In 2017, Warren set the Division II all-time record in the shot put with a mark of 57 feet, 9.75 inches at the Husky Classic. She earned a spot in the USATF meet again, this time placing sixth with a mark of 57 feet, 7.75 inches as the only collegian in the competition.

That June, Warren hit the national stage outdoors by earning an invitation to the USATF Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, placing 17th with a mark of 50 feet, 0.75 inches.

Warren finished her career as the two-time GNAC indoor champion in both the shot put and weight throw (2016 and 2017) and swept the shot put, discus and hammer at the 2017 GNAC Outdoor Championships.

Entering the second day of the 2018 GNAC Women’s Golf Championships, Concordia found itself down 10 strokes to Simon Fraser.

While Concordia received solid first-day rounds from aces Caitlyn Villatora and Cammie Decker, the Clan surged ahead as their scoring four all turned in rounds of 77 or less. Simon Fraser was in solid position to win its third consecutive conference title.

The Cavaliers had other plans. In the second round, Concordia’s top-four posted sub-80 scores and took advantage of struggles from the Simon Fraser lineup to not only makeup that 10-stroke deficit but parlayed it into a seven-stroke victory. The team’s round of 299 set a GNAC Championships record (later bettered by a 294 by Simon Fraser at the 2019 Championships).

“[I told the team] to stay focused and that you could still do it,” interim head coach Kim Dehning said. “Ten strokes down, it never once came to anyone’s attention that we were out of it by any means. We stayed really positive but didn’t get too worked up.”

Villatora led the way for the Cavaliers, carding a 7-over-par 149 to earn medalist honors and assure herself an all-conference berth. Decker finished one stroke behind, using a second round score of even-par 72 to finish at 8-over-par 150 en route to being selected as the GNAC Women’s Golf Player of the Year.

The Cavaliers also received top-10 finishes from Shantel Antonio, who tied for fourth at 11-over-par 153, and Staesha Flock, who finished 10th at 159.

For her part, Decker ended her career as one of the top women’s golfers in conference history. A four-time First Team All-GNAC selection, Decker was named the GNAC Player of the Year three times, sharing the award in 2019 and 2020. The Women’s Golf Coaches Association named her a Second Team All-American in 2020 and her 73.99 career stroke average is the second-lowest in conference history.

After a disappointing 2018 campaign, Concordia softball bounced back for a solid season in 2019. The Cavaliers surged to win six of their last eight games over the final two weekends to secure the No. 3 seed in the GNAC Championships.

All that was left was to pack for a trip to Billings, Montana and the postseason. It was at that moment that fate intervened. Thanks to a forecast of snow in Billings, the GNAC Championships were moved to Portland and Concordia’s Porter Park. Instead of traveling to a hotel in another state, the Cavs would sleep in their own beds.

Shelley Whitaker’s team made most of it, shutting out its opponents in the first two games to advance to the championship game. The Cavaliers outscored its opponents 12-0 and allowed just seven combined hits, which included a one-hit shutout by Mckenzie Smith in the tournament opener against Western Oregon. In the second game, the Cavs beat Central Washington by a 7-0 score. The Wildcats had swept Concordia at Porter Park just a weekend earlier by a combined score of 15-4.

Concordia and Central Washington met again in the final. Sally Bowles and the Wildcats’ Lexie Strasser each allowed three hits, but the Wildcats used an error to score the only run in the fourth for a 1-0 win.

In the deciding game, Concordia made a five-run fifth inning stand up for the win. Courtney Somers punctuated the frame with a two-run double. The Cavaliers held off a two-run CWU rally in the seventh inning for a 5-4 win.

"We have had our backs against the wall several times this year with injuries and must-win games and this team has continued to step up," Whitaker said. "Our student-athletes' support for each other has enabled us to play with confidence and peak in the final stretch of conference play."

Concordia was one of three GNAC teams that season to advance to the NCAA Division II Championships, falling 3-2 to Concordia-Irvine in the first game and 1-0 to Western Oregon in the second game.

At the end of January 2017, the Concordia men’s basketball team sat tied for ninth place in the GNAC standings at 4-8 and 8-11 overall. With eight games left in the regular season, the candle of postseason play was barely flickering.

But nobody told Brad Barbarick’s squad that. The Cavaliers proceeded to put together the best month in the program’s history, going 6-2 in February to secure the No. 5 seed in what would be Concordia’s only GNAC Men’s Basketball Championships appearance.

It helped that the Cavaliers played six of those eight games at home but that schedule included all four teams that finished ahead of them in the standings.

The run was punctuated by a four-game win streak to close the regular season, all decided by two points or less. It started with a 68-67 overtime win over second-place Alaska Anchorage on February 16, won on Davis Nuaimi’s jumper with 22 seconds left. The Cavaliers did not lead Alaska until the final two minutes on February 18, which proved enough in a 77-75 victory.

Concordia hosted Western Oregon for a close battle on February 21. This time a pair of Jarrett Gray free throws proved the difference in the 69-67 victory. The Cavaliers led Montana State Billings by as much as 13 points on February 23 but needed a tip-in by Drew Martin as time expired to escape with the 79-77 victory and the playoff berth.

“I’m really proud of how determined our guys were in these last regular-season home games,” Barbarick said of the final two weeks. “To win all four says a lot about their commitment to each other. We have had great leadership from our seniors all season and it was really fun for all of our guys to see such great home court fans.”

Concordia went on to lose to Saint Martin’s 78-73 in the quarterfinals of the GNAC Championships. The Cavaliers finished the season at 14-14.

Sweeping the three medals at a track and field meet is common. Sweeping all eight podium positions in one meet and a championship meet at that? That just doesn’t happen.

But that is exactly what Concordia’s women’s shot putters did at the 2018 GNAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The Cavaliers took all eight scoring places in the event, taking all 39 points. That sweep accounted for a large part of the Cavaliers’ second-place team total of 121 points.

The haul included three NCAA championships provisional qualifiers. Christina MacDonald won with a mark of 48 feet, 4.5 inches. Melissa Ausman collected the silver medal with a mark of 46 feet, 3.25 inches and Katrina Linenko the bronze with a mark of 45 feet, 7.75 inches. MacDonald, Ausman and Tasha Willing all went on to compete at the NCAA Championships with MacDonald and Ausman earning All-American honors.

All eight Concordia athletes finished the conference meet with marks over 40 feet. The Cavaliers that season also swept first and second place in the discus and hammer.

Despite all of its success in track and field, Concordia did not win a women’s team title until the 2020 GNAC Indoor Championships. And while the Cavaliers’ bread and butter was in the throws, a sophomore that excelled in everything but the throws secured the trophy.

A transfer from Moorpark College in Los Angeles, Paige Johnson seemingly had the Midas touch in every event she competed in. Winning conference titles in the 60 meters, 60-meter hurdles and the high jump, Johnson scored 35 points in the meet. Only Seattle Pacific’s Ali Worthen, who tallied 38 at the 2009 and 2012 indoor championships, has scored more.

En route to her three gold medals, Johnson set the conference record in the 60 meters with a time of 7.52 seconds in the final. The time ranked as the 11th fastest in Division II in 2020, earning Johnson a spot in the NCAA Championships. Her dash into history was selected as the Women’s Performance of the Meet.

By the time the season ended, Johnson also ranked No. 3 on the GNAC All-Time List in the 60-meter hurdles (8.55 seconds) and No. 8 in the long jump (19 feet). She was later named an All-American in both the 60 meters and 60-meter hurdles.

In addition to her individual events, Johnson ran legs on both Concordia relay teams. The Cavaliers’ fourth-place finish in the 4x400-meter relay proved the difference in a five-point team victory over Seattle Pacific.

“That was unbelievable. What she did at this conference championship is nothing short of remarkable,” head coach Jerret Mantalas said of Johnson. “She an incredible talent and we have seen that throughout the season. She came out and had a phenomenal meet.”

Throughout Concordia’s five seasons, Simon Fraser was the team to beat in GNAC men’s soccer. In those five seasons, the Clan won three conference titles and finished no worse than second. So any chance to put SFU on the ropes is a moment worth remembering.

When Concordia hosted Simon Fraser on September 28, 2017, the Clan outshot the Cavaliers 24-7, which included an 11-3 advantage in shots on goal. Concordia did not draw any corner kicks while the Clan took 10.

The only place Concordia dominated the contest was in the final score as a three-goal first-half scoring barrage proved the difference in a 3-2 upset of the then No. 2 ranked Clan.

Brady Sanders opened scoring in the third minute, rebounding a missed shot to put the Cavaliers up early. Simon Fraser tied the match in the 19th minute but Nick Evans succeeded in putting a shot just above the SFU goalie’s head in the 27th for a 2-1 lead. Christian Thyron put the icing on the cake in the 43rd, converting off a free kick.

Concordia bunkered down in the second half as the Clan outshot the Cavs 17-0 over the final 45 minutes. The Cavs yielded only more goal in the 79th minute.

Head coach Dan Birkey spoke only confidence after the win. “I am not surprised that the guys got the win today. They worked really hard for the result. It was an aggressive and confident first half and scoring three goals against Simon Fraser in 45 minutes is a statement of their will to win. They stayed organized defensively and saw the game out. It’s a great win for them and the program.”

rightSasha Jabusch
had no idea that the final weekend of February 2020 would be the beginning of the rapid end for Concordia baseball. It was only fitting that his penultimate start for the Cavaliers was a record-setting gem.

Throwing against Saint Martin’s on February 29, Jabusch hurled a three-hit shutout with just one walk at Porter Park to lead the Cavaliers to a 1-0 win. In the process, Jabusch struck out 15 batters to tie the GNAC single-game record. That plateau had been reached just six times before, most recently by Western Oregon’s Alex Roth in 2019.

Jabusch, a senior transfer from Concordia (Neb.), held the upper hand in what proved a pitcher’s duel against the Saints’ Tanner Inouye. The two pitchers combined to allow just seven hits on the day with the Cavaliers pushing across the only run when Todd Reese’s first-inning double scored Liam Knowles. Jabusch faced just five batters above the minimum.

For his efforts, Jabusch was named both the GNAC and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association West Region Player of the Week. He finished the season leading the conference with 44 strikeouts in 32.1 innings of the shortened season.

As hard as is to believe, the 15-strikeout day was not Jabusch’s career-best. That was a 17-strikeout performance for Concordia (Neb.) in a seven-inning affair against Dordt on April 27, 2019.

It was already a transitional year for Concordia. In his first year as head coach Rodrick Rhodes made steady improvement with a largely young group of players. The Cavaliers’ playoff chances had already been dashed when the closure announcement was made but the team was hungry to prove themselves.

Concordia entered the final week of the season on a five-game losing streak with the Alaska schools coming to Portland with GNAC Championships berths on the line. On February 27, the Cavaliers held off a second-half rally by the Nanooks to score a 78-73 victory behind a 21-point performance by Xavier Smith. Two days later, Smith’s two free throws with four seconds left capped a 26-point effort in a 72-68 win over Alaska Anchorage. Concordia rallied after trailing by as much as 13 points in the first half.

Following the game, Alaska Anchorage head coach Rusty Osborne encouraged the crowd to give his opponents a standing ovation.

“These guys could have packed it in but (this game) shows the character our kids have,” Rhodes said. “They never quit. They came to practice every day, practiced hard and they deserve all of the credit. I could not be more proud of a group than I am of this group.”

The closing weekend heroics earned Concordia selection as the GNAC Team of the Week and Smith selection as the GNAC Men’s Basketball Player of the Week. The Alaska Anchorage game was the second-to-last athletic event on the Portland campus before the COVID-19 outbreak ended the seasons, and Concordia’s athletic timeline, for good.