GVSU women’s basketball seniors reflect on careers, unique bond

GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Seniors from the womens basketball team are celebrated before the game against Northern Michigan on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 inside the Fieldhouse Arena in Allendale.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff – Seniors from the women’s basketball team are celebrated before the game against Northern Michigan on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 inside the Fieldhouse Arena in Allendale.

Josh Peick

In the current basketball culture of “one-and-done” players and players frequently transferring schools, it is uncommon that a freshman class remains intact until its senior season, but that’s what the 2017 class of the Grand Valley State women’s basketball team did. In fact, they added two players in the process.

In 2013 when the class arrived, the GVSU team had not reached the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season and had not made it to the Final Four since the 2005-06 season. The program was in need of a culture change, and it got it with the incoming 2013 class.

“When coach Burgess and I targeted that class, we wanted to make an impact in two, three months quickly recruiting to get high character, hard-working kids,” said GVSU associate head coach Phil Sayers. “That was our game plan going into it, recruit high-character kids and recruit the person, and then we’ll develop the players. We wanted kids that were winners and wanted to compete.”

With players competing at the championship level in high school, the 2013 freshmen class certainly did not lack winners.

“Taylor Lutz played in a state championship game. Kayla Dawson I think won four total (state championships) between basketball and volleyball. Keyara Wiard (competed in) regional finals year in and year out at Muskegon Oakridge. East Lansing, state champions, Piper Tucker. Janae Langs, she won everything,” Sayers said. “We saw potential to change the way our program acted.”

The freshman class quickly made an impact for the Lakers. Dawson, Tucker and Lutz all cracked the starting lineup in the 2013-14 season.

“(Freshman year), we were always the first ones at practice, always the last ones to leave,” Tucker said. “We’d be in the gym on Sundays together.”

“We got the nickname ‘squirrels’ because we were everywhere,” Langs said.

Although not everyone played impactful minutes their freshmen year, the rest of the players stuck with the process and supported their classmates on the floor.

“A couple of us got the opportunity to move into that starting role freshman year, and it wasn’t jealousy, (the mindset) was one of us is representing the class (on the court),” Langs said. “It’s easy to say that I’m competing against them, but it’s just so special that we were excited for each other.”

With the additions of transfers Bailey Cairnduff and Lindsay Baker, the class size grew to seven, and the talent on the court only increased.

“Bringing Lindsay (and Bailey) in too, just another addition that could help us out,” Lutz said.

“Two knockdown shooters,” Dawson said.

Eventually the rest of the class began making more of an impact on the court, and as a result the team won more games. In the 2014-15 season, the Lakers won 20 games for the first time in four seasons.

“We all talked about how people kept leaving before us and how we would be the ones to stick it out,” Wiard said.

The class stuck with the process, stuck with the development, and it started to pay dividends.

“Find a group of five, seven seniors in basketball, men’s, women’s, Divisions I, II or III that don’t transfer,” Sayers said. “It’s unheard of. These kids said they were going to stay the course and were so committed to the process of changing the culture, and we win basketball games because of it.”

Before the 2015-16 season, GVSU hired a new head coach, Mike Williams. A coaching change is something that often causes a wave of players to transfer out of the program, but the class of seven stuck together through the transition.

“It definitely made it easier to have a core group of girls with you through it,” Lutz said. “The unknown of it was scary, but it was easy because we had each other.”

The transition paid off. The following season, the Lakers advanced to the NCAA Final Four for the first time since the 2005-06 season. The improbable Cinderella run still feels like a dream for the current senior class.

“Surreal,” Langs said.

“Did that happen?” Baker said jokingly.

“We might have been the underdog every single game we went into, but we still found a way to get it done,” Cairnduff said. “That says a lot about who we are as people and as players.”

In their final season, the Lakers and the 2017 senior class hold a 20-6 record with one regular season game left on the schedule.

Still fighting for a postseason spot, if the Lakers make the tournament they will likely be seeded as a No. 5 seed or higher. Last season GVSU ranked as a seven seed in the regional tournament, proving that anything is possible come postseason time.

“They have been everything we’ve asked for,” Sayers said. “They don’t back down from challenges. They constantly set the tone.”

Regardless of a postseason berth, the 2017 class has already proven itself. From All-GLIAC selections to Final Four runs, from program records to 1,000 career points, the 2017 senior class has made its mark on the GVSU women’s basketball program.

But beyond the statistics, beyond the success on the court, the 2017 senior class has formed friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime.

“My mom tells me all the time, ‘You might remember the Final Four, but you’re not going to remember the X’s and O’s and the stats, you’re going to remember the way that these girls made you feel part of your family’,” Baker said. “I couldn’t imagine walking down the aisle and them not be there. I think that’s special because I don’t think a lot of teams have that kind of serious bond, maybe with one or two people but not with seven.”

A group of five freshmen and two transfers that made the most of their collegiate basketball careers by sticking it out and staying the course.

“Coming in we didn’t know anything about each other, and now I can’t imagine life without them,” Lutz said.