National champs!

GVL / Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews

Pete Barrows

By Pete Barrows [email protected]
Photos by Robert Mathews

It rolled across 25 yards of mud and slick grass, over 25 games without a loss, through soccer careers years in the making and a season spanning months and three seconds of the 5,400 played in Saturday’s Division II women’s soccer title game.

And then it rolled past Argonaut keeper Sara Story’s lowered finger tips into the bottommost corner of the University of West Florida crease, like a car off the highway 800 miles away from home finally arriving at an intended and much desired destination. Like it belonged there.

The NCAA regulation ball rolled, taking a favorable Laker bounce, until it grazed woven white nylon netting. A conclusive peace emanated from the orb across Blanchard Woods Park in Evans, Ga., all the way back to Allendale, Mich., in minute 59 of a 0-0 game.

The 2013 Grand Valley State University women’s soccer team that had rolled past every obstacle, through every practice and every game placed in front of them this season, across state lines and into the title game, had just won a third national championship in five years.

“Prior to that goal, I don’t know that our body language was negative, but we had not done what we had wanted to do,” GVSU coach Dave Dilanni said. “I thought you saw our body language change almost immediately, so did theirs. The game is cruel sometimes, but at the end of the day, (if) you don’t shoot, you don’t score. I don’t know that we deserved that goal, but I thought that it stirred us for the final 25 minutes and gave us an opportunity to drive it home.”

Forward Marti Corby had a direction in mind when she teed off the slow-rolling shot that didn’t appear to have a chance of breaking the scoreless tie. The Lakers had mapped out goals at the beginning of the season, the final and most prominent of which was to win a national championship, but Corby, a freshman, could not have known how far her and her teammates would travel or when the trip would come to a close.

“(Winning a national championship) was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, and we knew if we just worked hard for it, we could get here, but it just seemed so imaginable at the time,” Corby said. “It was a hard journey, but we stayed together throughout, pushed through all the games, and we got here. We made it.”

She closed out the season with six goals and three assists in GVSU’s final seven matches, but Corby, who fired 109 shots this season, could not have known in that slow-rolling moment that she had just made the most important strike of her career to-date. Like a soccer ball and a team in the midst of a historic season, a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

“Right when I hit it, I looked down and I didn’t think it was going in it at all, but right when I looked up, I saw it trickle in,” Corby said. “It was crazy.”


Entering Saturday’s Division II women’s soccer grand finale, GVSU had won 23 consecutive matches. Defending national champion UWF had not lost in 34. One of the two teams had been a part of every Division II championship since 2009. It was only a matter of time — and travel — before the perennial powers crossed paths. Like prize fighters trading jabs, GVSU and UWF began the match exchanging shots.

UWF two-time All-American forward Chelsea Palmer fired from 13 yards out but was foiled by GVSU senior keeper Abbey Miller. Just 53 seconds later, freshman forward Kendra Stauffer launched from the tip of the goal box, narrowly curving a ball around the left goal post.

As the first half of Saturday’s final rolled to a close knotted 0-0, a pair of 10-plus-year tenured coaches told the tale. Two of the most accomplished active coaches in Division II, UWF’s Joe Bartlinski and GVSU’s Dilanni have both won 221 games and more than 86 percent of their career matches, but they had never before met head-to-head.

Bartlinski hovered over his sideline seat, demonstrative and vocal, boldly steering his team forward with guttural bellows. Dilanni sat on the bench with his players, cool, calm and collected with legs crossed, allowing his players to drive.

Both the Argonauts and the Lakers, two teams with distinctive styles of play — UWF a pace pushing and pressuring team with an inclination towards offense; GVSU a possession-emphasizing squad with a penchant for defense — mirrored their respective coaches on the pitch.

UWF outshot GVSU 8-5 in the first stanza and had several go-ahead opportunities, but it couldn’t capitalize against GVSU’s Miller, who made three outstanding saves in the first half. The Argonauts struggled, as most teams have, to crack the Laker defense, which marked school record shutout No. 21 of the season in the match. Meanwhile, the Lakers struggled to maintain possession and launch a counter-assault.

“It wasn’t a pretty game,” Dilanni said. “It was very physical, there were a lot of battles in the midfield, we had trouble getting in behind them, but in the same token, I thought our backline did an exceptional job of keeping the West Florida forwards in front of us and not getting beat by pace.”


Bartlinski kept his team on the bench at halftime to save three minutes traveling to and from the locker room, and he delivered an inspired address over chants. Dilanni tactically reassessed his usual lineup and reached into his deep bench, rotating through defensive backs and ball-control midfielders in attempts to redirect the match in the Lakers’ favor.

“The game looked like it was going to be physical, and I gave it about three quarters to see if we could open it up and bang it around, and we just didn’t,” Dilanni said. “We said from the beginning depth was going to be a big factor, and it came to fruition during the game.”

Miller made her fourth save of the match in minute 52 to stall an Argonaut offensive, and at the 58:35 mark, the game hit a fork in the road.

Corby made a run, fired, scored. The ball rolled right in. Both weary travelers, a gassed UWF team was left deflated, GVSU rejuvenated. Eighteen minutes later, the Lakers sent the Argonauts packing.

Stauffer, one of the shortest girls on the field at any particular time, had battled vigorously all afternoon, chasing loose balls and facilitating Laker chances. Sensing opportunity in the moment, she struck.

“When you’re playing against man-marking, you have to fight, be determined to get into spaces, and she did that today,” Dilanni said. “Kenny’s a competitor and that’s what you need to know about her. When the lights are on, she competes, and I think we have a lot of those kids.”

Weaving through traffic, Stauffer collected a through-ball from junior forward Jenny Shaba and shifted gears as she swerved through the UWF defense, pulling Story off her line to defend. Another shot, another opportunity.

“I know that anything can happen, and I took that from last year,” sophomore forward Katie Bounds said. “I knew anything could go either way, and our energy was key. We had to keep pushing through. As long as you want that goal, you can get it.”

Story managed to graze the shot, but just as it had 18 minutes prior, the moment froze in minute 76 as Bounds hammered a motionless rebound into a wide-open goal. The right moment. The right players. The Lakers were up 2-0, 14 minutes away from a title.

“All year long, we played the players I thought the moment needed,” Dilanni said. “Our girls have been very selfless about their roles. Everybody wants to play 90 minutes, but what has been special about this team is how they’ve accepted a lot of the young kids’ roles, and we feel like a team. There is a lot of chemistry. I give our seniors credit for that.”

The final minutes played out into a Laker crescendo, as occasional bursts of anticipation bubbled over from the sidelines onto the field. UWF, who did not get a single shot off in the final 37:26 of the game, had reached the end of the road.

“We know the pressures of coming back as a defending national champion and how difficult that is,” Dilanni said. “I thought Joe did a great job of getting those girls here to the finals.”

A ’5-4-3-2-1’ countdown clamored down from the P.A., trophies rolled onto the field on trolleys, championship T-shirts and hats were distributed, all in a blur. The Lakers’ season, like the 2009 and 2010 championship seasons before, has come to a halt, as all good things must.

“They’re all different teams, and they’re different because there are different players, and it’s a different journey,” Dilanni said in comparing GVSU’s three championship squads. “Three in five years is pretty special, but this one’s different because of these kids. We lost a great senior class that had a fantastic career together, but we brought in great freshmen, had awesome senior leadership, and the team came together. You could see us climb throughout the journey.”

There are few better feelings than pulling off the road at the end of a long drive, a destination reached — GVSU should know, they’ve arrived — for the moment. Next year, there will be new players, new goals, and new challenges for the Lakers to conquer. More the year after, and then the year after that.

“I’m really proud of our team effort,” DiIanni said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we dug in and did all the intangible stuff to get this win.”

Next year will come soon enough.

Saturday, for the briefest of moments, a ball nestled in the corner of the net, and a team united with trophies in hand at midfield to enjoy a well-deserved pause to relish the moment. A moment to realize that there is no one destination to arrive at, that the true joy of soccer, and life, is the trip. A moment to understand that a title, all the records and accolades, are merely road markers — souvenirs for the ride.

Accompanied right-to-left by Stauffer, Bounds and Corby at the postgame press conference table, all wearing championship hats flipped backwards and smiles that only the acknowledgment of arrival can unhinge, Dilanni drove home the final touch on a season that transcended the tangible.

“It was fun,” he said. “Had nothing to do with the wins. We just had a good time. The people were great, we competed, we had a good time this fall. We’re going to enjoy the moment while it’s here.”