Former GVSU rugby standout stars in professional league

GVL / Courtesy Joanna Kitlinski

JD Black

GVL / Courtesy Joanna Kitlinski

Brady McAtamney

Grand Valley State has a national reputation for producing steady and qualified contributors to both educational and athletic fields. Though football is often the sport perceived as dominant at GVSU, former women’s rugby star Joanna Kitlinski is setting out to change that view.

Kitlinski, a Clinton Township native and GVSU graduate, is currently a player for the Glendale (Colorado) Raptors of USA Women’s Premier League Rugby, and, after the Raptors won the league championship this past season, Kitlinski won club MVP honors.

With obvious talent and a knack for playing the game, one would assume that Kitlinski was brought up in rugby – that she has played for most of her life. Assuming that would make one wrong.

As a freshman in college in 2006, Kitlinski had never played rugby. In fact, she got into it from a girl who lived in her same dorm. The girl insisted that Kitlinski come to practice with her, and it stuck.

“By the time she was a freshman, she played hard. She wasn’t a starter her first semester, but then she turned it up to a different degree. By the time she was a senior she could play anywhere on the field and excel at it and help others out,” said GVSU head coach Abe Cohen. “She grew as a leader and she was able to make others better. She listened well and people wanted her to feel good so they could be prepared. She was the best player I’ve ever coached overall from a rugby standpoint.”

For Kitlinski, her growth as an individual on the rugby pitch coincided with GVSU’s program growth. As Kitlinski improved, so too did the Lakers.

“It was neat to go from having never played to being a regular. We started in Divison II and we made it to the Final Four, then the following year we went there again, but lost. The next year (2008) we went to Division I. In 2010 we were in the Final Four to qualify in nationals but lost to Northern Iowa again. We were really good in that Midwest area.”

Her time at GVSU was one of many contributing factors in her rise to stardom in the WPL scene, having played with the U.S. national under-20 team in South Africa.

“I worked my way up with a lot of different teams. Bryn Chivers was the U.S. under-20 team coach, and he was someone who gave me the opportunity in a position where I wasn’t at my best. He told me I would play in a position called hooker, which I thought was funny, and it ended up coming true, and of course Bob (Richthammer) and Abe at GV.”

As for her new home in Colorado, Kitlinski is loving every second, working as a clinical recruiter while off the field. She signed on with the Raptors after graduating from GVSU and is astounded with the culture that surrounds the team. Of the eight teams in the league, the Raptors are considered the most supported as far as fan bases go, and they also possess state-of-the-art facilities, as well as the only rugby-specific stadium in the country (Infinity Park).

With her versatility to play anywhere on the field and ability to make everybody better, as emphasized by Cohen, Kitlinski is a prime candidate to receive a spot with the 2017 World Cup team, and she believes in herself wholeheartedly, even after missing the cut for the 2014 team.

Aside from her job at Davita Dialysis in Denver and her role on the turf, Kitlinski looks forward to getting into coaching. She has experience with Grandville High School, which recently won back-to-back championships.