Emily Spitzley talks hoops, milestones and team culture for women’s basketball


GVL / Bethann Long

Anthony Clark Jr., Sports Editor

Westphalia, MI is a small village roughly 55 miles east of Grand Rapids with a population of about 1,000 residents. Those who didn’t grow up in the community may not think anything more of it besides a farmers’ town. For fifth-year guard Emily Spitzley, it’s the place where the game of basketball all started.

Grand Valley State University women’s basketball would eventually be the landing spot for Spitzley after high school. Like many true freshmen joining a team, Spitzley didn’t see a lot of action on the court as she adjusted to her new environment.

Averaging just 4.8 minutes of playing time in her 24 games played in the 2018-19 season, Spitzley figured the best solution of gaining respect from her peers and herself most importantly would be to put her head down and grind.

“I came in like a nervous little kid not stepping on anybody’s toes, kind of stay in your own lane (and) do your thing,” Spitzley said. “Over the last five years, I’ve been able to find that confidence, find that voice for myself overall. And that kind of comes with getting better overall as a basketball player.”

“At first I didn’t have too much to offer and I really had to work hard, had to battle injury and I had to (get) stronger, faster,” Spitzley said. “So finding some way to add to the team in that way was really important for me. Once I got going with that I felt like things kind of started falling into place which was special.”

Suffering an injury is a fear for just about any athlete. Even with the advanced physical therapy and medicine available today, there is no guarantee that a player will return and play the same after being injured, especially after an ACL tear.

The knee injury was not only a physical struggle for Spitzley, but the young guard at the time had to find a way to stay motivated mentally and emotionally in order to battle back to where she wanted to be after losing the majority of her second season.

“It was tough because I had a really good summer before that (injury) and was getting some momentum in the sport,” Spitzley said. “(In a different lens), overall I think that was good for me. It was a way for me to find myself and who I am outside of basketball for a while.”

Having a trivial moment like this in the earlier parts of her career have now allowed Spitzley to give back to her teammates that deal with significant injuries or are fresh-faced as incoming freshmen.

“When people on our team have gone through ACL injuries that’s something I understand extremely well and (I have) been able to be there for people that need that,” Spitzley said. “It’s always good to see people come back from that injury too because we have had so many of them.”

“Overall I have had a lot of experience to share and if people are receptive to it, they can see that even if you start at the bottom of the totem pole; if you work hard and stay the course, you can figure it out,” Spitzley said.

Persistence and the hunger to win have paid off exponentially well for Spitzley as she continues to ride out her final season in a Laker uniform. As a leader on the hardwood, Spitzley’s averages have allowed for huge moments not only on the court, but in the history books as well.

With her current season averages at 14.3 points per game (45% FG), 4 rebounds 1.7 assists on 23.7 minutes per game, Spitzley wouldn’t have pictured herself to reach the heights she’s at now – especially etching herself into the record books.

In a road matchup against the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on Jan. 5, Spitzley was the driving force behind a dramatic comeback that went into overtime. 

An 11-point output by Spitzley in the fourth quarter alone would consist of her game-tying three pointer to send the game to overtime. Spitzley would ultimately put up a 31-point performance (career high) that allowed for her to breach the 1000th career point mark, making her the 27th Laker in history to reach the milestone. It would also lead to her third GLIAC Player of the Week award of her career.

“I felt like it was one of those nights where if you get the ball, you can just shoot it in anybody’s face,” Spitzley said. “But we had a lot of contributions from a lot of players in that game…It really is fun and rewarding just to hit that milestone (but) it isn’t something I thought I would ever have – I’m just proud of myself for figuring out how to make it happen.”

Playing five seasons with one program can bring a large (and wide) degree of experiences, and one that sticks out for Spitzley is the progression of team culture from freshman year to this season.

“I would say the culture has been really constant for my whole five years, the things that were important to us from my freshman year to now align in the exact same way,” Spitzley said. “We have one through 17 (team roster) that are just excited for their teammate as they are for a win (and) themselves. The overall energy and the desire to win has been really great this year.”

With the team’s overall record currently at 19-2 (10-1 in GLIAC) and momentum riding high, Spitzley knows that no season is ever a guarantee of winning anything. The Lakers were able to reach the NCAA Women’s DII Final Four in the 2021-22 campaign, and even with the dominance put on display this season, the team is making sure to focus on one day at a time.

“Our conference this year is extremely tough, so I think that we know now for sure that any game can go either way (and) it’ll be a battle the rest of the way through,” Spitzley said. “We really take each game seriously. We’re expected to play our style of play, play our best, play the way we know how to (since) that’s really all we can control.”

With her collegiate journey nearing its end in the coming months, Spitzley appreciates the many opportunities that came out of basketball.

From building strong relationships with current and former teammates, her coaching staff and support system that helped her battle through setbacks and reach personal milestones, lacing up her sneakers for the last five years has placed an impact for a lifetime.

“I could not have imagined that I’ve had the career that I’ve had so far when I was a freshman coming in here, I didn’t see that coming,” Spitzley said. “It’s been special and rewarding in a lot of ways and I’ve had people that have helped me get here and I wouldn’t be here without them.”