Michigan State at Grand Valley State
October 5, 2019
Detroit may be Hockeytown, but the epicenter of ACHA Women’s Division 1 hockey resides about 150 miles west of the Motor City, in Grand Rapids, where three of D1’s twenty-five teams reside.
Phoenix has Grand Canyon and Arizona State. St. Louis has Lindenwood-Belleville and McKendree. Concordia and Michigan are both located in Ann Arbor. But nobody else has three. Grand Rapids is Clockeytown.
Off of the southeast corner of the city, near an airport named after Gerald R. Ford (quite the sportsman in his day, I’m told), is Davenport. The Panthers are a lovable bunch that’s small in numbers but big in heart and goaltending, and usually good for the occasional win that nobody whatsoever saw coming.
Go two exits further on I-96 towards the center of town, and you’ll run into Aquinas College, although the Saints play at Southside Ice Arena in Byron Center which is, uh, on the south side. Aquinas is the newest program of the triumvirate, as they started up in 2015 and moved to Division 1 in 2017 immediately after an appearance at the Division 2 national tournament, so they’re still squarely in the middle of their initial build. They did, however, make headlines this past offseason when they hired Lisa Brown-Miller – a long-time U.S. National Team member who was on the first-ever Olympic gold-winning women’s hockey squad in 1998 – as their head coach.
Finally, on the far west side of Grand Rapids, is Grand Valley State University and their rink, Griff’s Georgetown. If the scope of this writing was wider, we could talk about the men’s ACHA teams in the area, including prominent ones at all three schools I’ve mentioned so far, along with Calvin University. Grand Rapids, as most know, is also home to the Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, connecting Hockeytown with Clockeytown. Whether through a Wings pennant behind the concession stand at Griff’s or the clothing of the people ordering its basic fare, you’re never too far from a winged wheel in GR.
But we’re here to talk about Grand Valley, which presents a huge problem: unlike its neighbors, easy narratives elude it.
Which story do you tell? You could probably start with the fact that the Lakers are one of the ACHA’s most successful programs. Their seven ACHA National Tournament appearances rank tenth all-time, and most of the teams in the top nine have been around longer. GV jumped into the fray for the 2007-08 season, made their first trip to nationals the following year (starting a run of three straight), and by 2011 was sending three players (Ashley Rumsey, Shelby Kucharski, and Chelsea Minnie) and a coach (Cory Whitaker) to Erzurum, Turkey as part of the first-ever American women’s hockey delegation to the World University Games tournament.
The high-water mark, to this point, came in the 2015-16 season. The Lakers, deep and talented on the backs of players like Kendra Myers, Alexa Tenwalde, Frankie Wojtylo, Stacey Mathieu, and a goaltending tandem of Taylor Watson and gigantic Lauren Allen, posted a good-but-hardly-head-turning 17-7-0 regular season record. But GV then got hot at the proverbial right time, running through the CCWHA playoffs and besting Miami in overtime of the championship game on Téa Greca’s power play goal. Fortune (good, not Sam) was their ally again at nationals when Tenwalde beat Adrian in double overtime of a bizarre semifinal, one that featured two Bulldogpiles in sudden death, only for both masses of humanity to be neatly placed back on the bench after video review.
Whichever of the hockey gods is responsible for overtime demanded retribution the next day though: another winner-take-all and another overtime against the RedHawks was too much to overcome, and the Lakers settled for second.
Another story, I suppose, is that GV has achieved that level of success despite fitting the traditional definition of a club hockey team in the way that outsiders think of the pursuit, a status that’s become somewhat rare near the top of an ACHA increasingly dominated by fully-funded athletic department programs. The Lakers team members pay dues, take care of their own business and operational needs, and don’t have a ton done on their behalf from the club sports office.
All of that means that they’re both the most successful program in Clockeytown and also the only one that fits the “true club” model: Aquinas is fully-funded, Davenport was at one point, then unceremoniously jettisoned into a bizarre non-varsity tier limbo when the school moved its other sports teams from the NAIA to the NCAA, but they still receive something more than a dreaded “NV” tag on everything they do from the back office.
Grand Valley’s way of doing things isn’t any more correct than anyone else’s way; after all, everyone takes what they can get and is on the path they see as best for themselves. But there is something more pure about it, something more in line with what this was all supposed to look like, and what it did look like, before everyone realized that no rules actually exist against financial aid and letting salaried athletic administrators run everything – it was just always assumed they did, and reinforced through repeated falsehoods about the differences between NCAA and ACHA hockey.
It’s purely anecdotal, and may or may not even be accurate, but I’ve always felt that GV’s station has drawn some truly fascinating people with impressive academic interests into the program. There are certainly some stories there.
Let’s start with backup goaltender Emma Hembrough, who assists with game operations and social media when she isn’t dressed. She’s from Ubly, a village of fewer than 1,000 people in the mitten’s thumb (if you know, you know) and ended up at GV when it was the only school she considered after becoming familiar with it through a family friend and falling in love. Hembrough is studying nursing, with plans to eventually go to grad school and become a midwife.
“I love delivery and female care, and I love the idea of starting my own practice and doing home births,” she explained.
Defenseman Sally Hoerr recently closed her four-year career with the Lakers as a smart and reliable blueliner and an alternate captain.
“Regardless of the team, the score, injuries, whatever, I was our lock-down defenseman,” the Vermont native said. “I could rush, but I was there to shut down the other team and their best players wherever I could. I wasn’t going to be the one to put a lot of points on the board, but I made sure the other team didn’t either!”
As great of a player as Hoerr was, she might have been even better off the ice, where she ultimately ended up as the team’s co-president. Her chosen field is film and video (with a minor in business), and after doing the Lakers’ graphic design work while chasing down sponsors and streaming opportunities, entering the film industry or working in an NHL team’s media department will be a natural transition.
Wisconsinite senior Connor Denton, another fantastic defenseman and another alternate captain, has some pretty specific plans as well. After deciding to transfer from McKendree, she was looking for schools with good health and medical programs, and GV popped up.
“Once I visited, I was sold on the place,” she recalled. “It’s very affordable, and it reminded me so much of Wisconsin, that was my main reason for going.”
Denton is studying allied health sciences with a minor in psychology, as she seeks to go into medical sales, then take that money to pursue becoming a registered dietician.
Okay, one more.
Katie Gialloreti is the team’s current president and is double majoring in behavioral neuroscience and psychology. She plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. and become a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist, and work with patients who have had traumatic brain injuries.
“Grand Valley is just an amazing school, with so many resources and opportunities to utilize,” she said. “And the competitive atmosphere the team had is what really drew me in – I saw a bunch of girls who could be joking around and having fun, but when it was time to work, man these girls worked!”
So, to review: great school that feels like home, the chance to be whatever you want to be, and some highly-competitive hockey. Sure, it sounds like it’s straight out of the viewbook, but when player after player tells that same story, modifying it only for their major and chosen field, there has to be something deeper to it than marketing copy. It’s not like any of these women have an overprotective SID to carefully manage their interviews.
It’s hard to talk to any of them, see how passionate they are about the sport and about their off-ice interests, and not think they’re destined to change the world, or at least their corner of it.
Of course, on the ice, the Lakers’ story is that of a program that is going through a bit of an identity crisis. A solid 2018-19 group that could have fairly been considered a darkhorse contender (they took eventual runner-up Lindenwood-Belleville to overtime of a deciding game three in the ACHA quarterfinals) included 11 seniors, among them long-time stars like Hoerr, Allison Carlson, Taylor Lampar, and Brelin Tasker.
Now they’re young – 14 freshmen and Arizona State transfer Sydney Hancock replaced those seniors – and uncharacteristically struggling a bit. GV opened the season by hosting a showcase with Aquinas, Concordia, and Midland, and while the 2-2 outcome wasn’t disastrous, it was hardly inspiring. The Lakers’ pedigree is that of a team able to skate with a Midland, not one that eats a 7-0 loss and says “well, they’re really good, that’s okay.”
Then the worst of all: yesterday’s 10-0 curbstomping at the hands of Michigan State in the front half of the series at Munn Ice Arena.
GV almost didn’t show up for the second game of the series either, although more literally in this case, as the Spartans stood ready for the starting lineups on their goalline for a couple minutes before the home side even emerged from their locker room. The scorekeeper hammered the buzzer a couple times, perhaps while wondering a little bit about the Lakers’ psychological state, finally drawing 20 brand new white, blue, and black jerseys to the ice. Fortunately, it got better from there.
In the early going, the undisputed star of the game was GV goaltender Morgan Lang. Lang, the only remaining player from the ACHA finalists of 2016 (although she was the third goalie back then) was incredible, turning aside just about everything the Spartans had to offer, including late in the first period when she dove to her left to make a glove save on Maddie Wolsmann. Wolsmann, the 2017-18 Zoë Harris Award winner, looked certain to score after Lang left a pad rebound on a Morgan Graham try.
At the end of the season, it will still hold up as one of the saves of the year in any level of hockey, by a woman, a man, or a genderless shape shifter. There isn’t any video of it, so you’ll just have to take me at my word.
Wolsmann did get the best of Lang once during the opening period by snaking down the right side of the ice herself from the Spartan zone, likely perturbed that the Lakers had just killed off her team’s power play, and delivering a pretty finish to make the score 1-0 for the visitors. While it seemed clear that the Lakers weren’t going to be 10-bageled again, it had the feel of one of those “fairly respectable score, but never actually in doubt” contests. 3-0? 4-1? Something like that. MSU would be happy they won, GV would be happy that they survived. Good game everyone, let’s go eat.
Before the expected could play out though, Grand Valley gave the few dozen attendees – and perhaps more importantly, themselves – a glimpse of what was possible.
As if ordained by Neptune himself, the Lakers started clicking towards the end of the first period. The program’s long tradition of quick and intelligent defenders, led in the present day by Denton, seemed as healthy as ever. Katie Tauer also stands as a core member of the unit, while rookie Angie Schulz (whose twin sister, goaltender Sammy, also joined the team this season) had what could be considered a breakout game, if it’s possible to have one that people will acknowledge without scoring stats.
The Lakers are going to be okay.
GV finally found a payoff on their increased footing midway through the second, when Lexi Anderson made a fantastic play just inside the Michigan State line, backhanding a puck back towards the slot to Hancock. The New Mexico native, who had a roughly a decade to work with after the Spartans had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and prematurely chased a non-existent puck up the ice, flicked her CCM and filled the cage of the barn off Bauer Rd. Tie game, arms up, Pitbull’s Fireball on the public address.
Things got even better from there, as MSU took a penalty 30 seconds after Hancock’s goal, then two more to give GV a long five-on-three bridging the second and third periods.
But…nothing. The Lakers are going to be okay, but they’re still young, which means key opportunities sometimes get missed. Almost predictably once that happened, the Spartans’ Natalia Asimakis fired past Lang from the left circle with 11:15 to go, eventually giving her team a 2-1 win.
Should the Lakers be happier about that than they were about losing 7-0 to Midland? That’s tough to say. A loss is a loss, but the mental toughness and on-ice adjustments that produced such a dramatic turnaround against a good Michigan State team probably shouldn’t be ignored. Really, it’s a question that can only be answered in time. After all, GV’s roster isn’t the only thing that’s young.
You can write one of those stories, or you can write all of them. You can read the thing to yourself, think it sounds too much like a puff piece even though no truths were bent in the writing of this essay, put it down for a few days, then try again. In the meantime, the Lakers will be carrying the banner for Clockeytown, and trying to win a nearly impossible fight.