For GVSU women, solidarity is all it takes

GVL/Kevin Sielaff
#4 Kat LaPrairie

GVL/Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff #4 Kat LaPrairie

Nick DeMaagd

A team’s success can be dictated by individuals or the sum of its individuals.

Strong and effective teams demonstrate their strength through the former or the latter, and synergy is just one of many aspects that play a part in the achievements a team can accomplish. The women who comprise Grand Valley State’s basketball team fit the latter of the two determinants.

The 15 women that line GVSU’s roster aren’t recruits picked for just their skills. Assistant coach Phil Sayers, who acts as recruitment director, said part of the recruitment criteria is if the recruit will be a good fit for the team, regardless of their skills on the court.

“They aren’t recruited to be average, they’re recruited to be great,” Sayers said.

Being great doesn’t just apply to performance on the court. The development that each of the team members go through shapes them off the court as well. Head coach Janel Burgess centers her philosophy on the phrase “We Before Me.”

“We’re talking about the collective efforts, to always focus on the team and not the individual,” Burgess said.

Sayers said the term encompasses the idea of the team as “us being one” and to be humble. He also said that because everyone is humble, everyone listens to one another. Players have just as much of a say on plays and strategies as the coaches.

But the will to win asks much of each player and a team can only succeed if they work together. The unity of GVSU’s women’s basketball team exists solely for that reason. Drive.

“They’re 15 strong, extremely competitive ladies who are fighters from beginning to end at practice and in games,” Burgess said.

This year’s squad is different than in previous years, many of the players being much younger. Senior Kat LaPrairie said the team jokes and laughs a lot, keeping the atmosphere light but when it comes to warm ups together they become serious.

“We’re very close-knit which allows us to be competitive,” LaPrairie said. “But we know we have a job to do and we lock in.”

The bonding between players and coaches is much like a family and the trust they place in one another extends beyond the court. Burgess said the ladies challenge one another to be better players and people.

“The team’s character serves as a model to others,” Sayers said.

When it comes to Burgess’ relationship with the players it’s clear her influence has affected the way they conduct themselves on and off the court. Burgess has an open-door policy where players can come and talk to her about anything whether it’s just to say hello or to discuss issues regarding their lives.

The impact is felt by the players.

“If I had to describe Coach Burgess’ coaching style in three words it would be ‘love, serve and care,’” Sayers said. “She loves working with her players, she’s a servant who will do things like make dinner for the team, invite them over during Christmas break. She spends 20 minutes with every player every other week to address each of their individual needs and gets to know them off the court.”

A former player herself, Burgess has the experience of both being a player and being a mother. Sayers said that experience and motherly instinct allows her to be empathetic and build a strong relationship with each player to help them translate what they learn in basketball to the bigger picture and prepare them for their future career.

“She never misses an opportunity to teach,” Sayers said.

The open-door policy began at the start of the year for the team, each player met with Burgess to discuss their goals for the season and in life. LaPrairie said those one-on-one meetings are held outside her office somewhere else on campus where basketball isn’t the focus. Each meeting impacts the trust between coach and player and the relationship between them.

While time outside of practice has helped develop a sense of family between the coaches and players, the influence has translated to in-game success too. Each practice jersey this season had a word imprinted on it, something Burgess had taken from John Gordon, author of The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy, and One Word That Will Change Your Life. Each player chose a word that they wanted to embody during the season during practice and games but also in life in general.

Players are checked up on their progress with their word on a weekly basis and the team was asked to grade one another over winter break and share their thoughts with the rest of the team. Both the coaches and players will check up on one another outside these periodical check-ups.

“Words can be heard throughout practice, they can be used to motivate each other,” Sayers said.

It’s the solidarity the team exhibits on a daily basis that has allowed them to earn a 12-4 record this season.

Something as simple as walking through an open door and sitting down to get to know someone can be the key point in developing a level of trust and respect that breeds excellence on the court. For seniors like LaPrairie, being asked about how they’re doing goes a long way.

“It’s like having the ball in your court,” LaPrairie said. “The power to impact others and having us think outside of ourselves and about others.”

Each word imprinted on the 15 jerseys of the women’s basketball team serve as a part of a group of individuals who strive to not only embody those words but to help the teammate next to them live theirs.