As expected Grand Valley State women are dominating Michigan’s DII college scene. The Panthers moved dropped down to DII this year to align with the university, and they returned to a league that’s rebuilding toward its former competitiveness. Grand Valley beat Western Michigan 59-7 on Sunday.
“When we started in Michigan’s DII, we were really bad when we started,” Grand Valley coach Bob Richthammer said. “As we got better, so did the other teams, and we were eventually mandated up to DI through the Midwest’s initiatives. The DII teams fell of the path, but now they have some new coaches, are getting better, but they’re still really young.”
Grand Valley is young, too, and the average age of players is 19 Rookies comprise half the roster.
“I’ve never had a batch of rookies do so well early in the season,” Richthammer said. “Eastern Illinois picked us apart. They found our rookie and kept attacking them. After we watched the film, we made some adjustments at practice, and the rookies have been doing everything we’ve coached them to do – and executing for 80 minutes! That’s unheard of for freshmen. We’ve had good rookies before, some that have played in high school, but they’re playing with such continuity and understanding this different level of play. They’re like sponges.”
Colleen Unsworth is just one example of the rookies’ prowess. She played her first full game at wing this Sunday, filling in for an injury. She immediately embraced Grand Valley’s playing style of keeping the ball moving and passing through contact. The former soccer and track star scored three tries supporting the forwards on weak-side attacks, receiving a pop from the ground and motoring down the sidelines.
The veterans picked up their game as well. In the offseason, many players subscribed to the P90X workouts and showed up to pre-season slimmer and more elusive. Richthammer had been concerned that his team would lose that aspect of their game, when the Lakers graduated stars like repeat All American and No. 8 Joanna Kitlinski, but he’s fears have been quelled.
Starting hooker Samantha Carbajal has been phenomenal this year. She’d always been known as excellent hooker, lineout thrower and rucker, but she wasn’t known as a runner.
“She dropped 15 lbs over the summer and has been playing lights-out this season,” Richthammer commended. “She’s been breaking away for 20-, 30-, 40-meter runs through traffic. She’s fun to watch; she runs downhill. After losing people like Joanna, it’s been great to have people step up. We knew we’d be OK on defense, but we didn’t know that we have these forward runners.”
The forwards are the more experienced group compared to the backs, which graduated starting wings, are missing both flyhalves, and have been missing their fullback due to injury.
“My forwards are big, mobile and fast,” Richthammer explained. “Several tight five players could play in the back line with their speed, but they the size for forwards. They’re the more experienced of the two groups [backs and forwards], and they set up the backline nicely. They do a good job of getting opposing teams’ backs into tackles and open it up for the backline.”
The forwards are so deep that they sent one of their front rows to fill flyhalf, former prop Brittney Bayne.
“She was a transfer student who played basketball and softball,” Richthammer said. “She has a really good mind for the sport. She does a good job distributing and supporting. We lose a little bit in the kicking game, but she has good team management skills.”
Helping Bayne with the transition is scrumhalf Emma Pesci. “She amazes me,” Richthammer confessed. “Every game, she just keeps improving. Her pass – we can put the flyhalf 25 meters out, and they’re getting there with nice rocket passes, which really opens up the field. Her open-field running has improved this year, too. She’s not fast but has become very elusive. She’s able to penetrate the defense then offload to forwards in support.”
Richthammer expects that Bowling Green will be the team’s biggest competition this season, and Central Michigan this weekend won’t be easy either. The latter knows the Lakers’ playbook and playmakers fairly well, so Richthammer will have to make some changes and support the freshmen who will be targeted on attack.
Grand Valley is the favorite to win the league, and Richthammer knows they can do well in the postseason.
“Every week is a playoff game when you have a young team,” Richthammer said, “but the upperclassmen really want to go to nationals. We’ve come so close the last few years in DI, losing in double overtime once, and last year losing on a 35-meter penalty in injury time. Veterans are excited but they’re not talking up nationals. They’re taking each opponent as they come, and they’re doing a good job of focusing on Central Michigan right now. As we get closer to nationals, that’ll be harder to control.”
Grand Valley has three more league games before state playoffs is a reality. Until then, they’ll continue to be Michigan’s strongest team.