THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN BY NCDA ALUMNI KEVIN BAILEY AND WES PETERS
Link to the full weekend schedule can be found here.
36 months. That’s how long it’s been since the last time the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association (NCDA) crowned a National Champion. That season, it was the Towson Tigers, thanks to a thrilling upset victory in the 2019 Title Game, arguably one of the greatest games in history.
College Dodgeball was in a great place back in 2019, and for the majority of the 2020 season as well. Clubs across the country were thriving, the league as a whole was deep, talented, and competitive from top to bottom. 15 years after the NCDA’s first season, the trajectory of the sport at the collegiate level was as exciting and promising as it had ever been.
After Towson took home the hardware in 2019, becoming the first non-Michigan school since 2006 to do so, the 2020 season appeared to feature 7+ schools with a legitimate shot at winning the National Championship. That level of parity at the top of the league was unheard of.
10-time champion Grand Valley State was their usual self, sitting atop the standings with an undefeated record. Michigan State was loaded with talent and had taken GVSU to overtime several times that season. Defending champion Towson was atop the East Coast once again and in great position to repeat. Ohio, 0-29 only a few seasons prior, was putting together a historic season (16-1 when the pandemic hit). Ohio State, owners of the first two NCDA titles (‘05 & ‘06), was right on OU’s heels thanks to a deep roster filled with veterans seeking their first championship. Miami was stacked and primed for a title run after coming up just short of their first Final Four berth in club history in 2019, and let’s not forget the always talented Dukes of JMU were no slouch back in 2020, with an above 70% win percentage. Bottom line, we were poised for an EPIC Nationals… The NCDA seemed to be hitting its stride.
Well… nobody could’ve predicted the COVID-19 pandemic would throw a wrench (sorry, couldn’t dodge this one) into our plans, and put College Dodgeball on the backburner for several years. Sadly, that was the reality we had to deal with. Safe to say, a lot has transpired in the last few ‘seasons’ or lack thereof.
The pandemic put an extra strain on club leaders across the NCDA, making everything more difficult from recruiting, to player retention, to reserving practice space, and everything in between. Simply put, the past 36 months since the last NCDA Nationals were far from easy for college dodgeballers.
And yet, we are finally back. After 36 months, the grand finale to the College Dodgeball season is upon us again. This weekend, April 9-10, on the campus of Western Michigan University, a new National Champion will be crowned. For those players who persevered through the pandemic and made it out on the other side, this Saturday must feel like Christmas morning. A chance for all the work over the past few years to pay off.
College Nationals is the best of dodgeball. Simple as that. Schools from across the country all converge on the same gym, with the same goal in mind: bring home a national title. Players will show up this Saturday and see plenty of unfamiliar faces. Opponents they have never faced off against. Players with skill sets they have no clue about until the opening rush. Old friends will reunite, new friendships will be forged, but that won’t stop anyone from doing everything in their power to drill the player across from them with an 8.5 inch rubber ball. And at the end of the weekend, a champion will be crowned. That’s College Dodgeball in a nutshell, and there really isn’t an atmosphere or experience in the sport that quite emulates NCDA Nationals.
The unknowns that come with bringing every school to one tournament is part of the beauty of Nationals, and this year, those unknowns will be even more pronounced. A condensed fall semester schedule, and COVID-19 restrictions at many schools, has resulted in less inter-region competition than any season in recent memory. Simply put, we haven’t seen enough competitions between the historically dominant Michigan Region and the Ohio Region. The East Coast hasn’t had as many opportunities to face off with schools like Nebraska, or Kentucky, or Wisconsin Platteville. There are plenty of unanswered questions to be answered this weekend.
Let’s take a look at the lay of the land in the NCDA heading into Nationals 2022:
Front Runners for the Championship
Bursting onto the championship contending scene are the #1 Cincinnati Bearcats (17-2). If you’ve been disconnected from the league this year, and really, since COVID, you might be shocked to see this team atop our shortlist of real deal championship contenders. You expected Grand Valley? Not so fast my friend. The Bearcats boast a talent-laden lineup that may be deeper than any other in the entire league, having lost only one player since the end of the shortened 2019/20 season, and having gained and developed many more since.
It’s remarkable to think that this club was winless last time they traveled to an NCDA Nationals, and unable to field a full roster. And when we say winless, we mean winless all-time as a program… a lot can change in a few years. Cincinnati will have a full, 18-player roster coming into Nationals this weekend, and you better believe they see themselves as the odds-on favorite to take home the championship trophy. Between All-American candidate Cory Heitmann, 4th year Captain Brett Liming, quickly rising lefty Matt Rosinski, black-hole catcher Ryan Engelman, the opportunistic hammer-armed Brannon McGinn, and jack-of-all-trades Jacob Weber, there may not be a better overtime six in the country. Nationals may be held in Kalamazoo and the Bearcats may be fresh to the title scene, but if you ask them, the road to the championship runs through Cincinnati.
#2 Grand Valley State (13-2), not the consensus favorite? While it’s true there are multiple legitimate title contenders this season, you still can’t go wrong betting on the Lakers. At 13-2, they still have a ton of household names. Former-MVP Ben Smart, Captain Tyler Peach, ex-Captain Josh Hill, Nick Hehl and many more great players fill out this lineup. Tom Williamson, Owen Isreals, Luke Bollman… no, seriously, this team has a lot of talent at the top of their roster. The question will be depth, and in typical Grand Valley fashion, they have done a phenomenal job developing young talent in a short period of time. Rookies like Ryan Paddock and Matthew Buddai will have a lot to say about who takes home the championship on Sunday. Grand Valley has some absolutely bonkers streaks on the line this weekend. A 15th consecutive Final Four appearance and an 8th consecutive Title Game appearance (and 14th in 15 years) to name a few. Of course there will be a lot of pressure on this cast of Lakers, but that is always the case for this program when Nationals rolls around. If this team is playing their best dodgeball on Sunday afternoon, they will be a tough team to bet against.
Michigan Dodgeball Cup Champions (for the first time in 17 years), #4 Michigan State (8-3) is in prime position to win their first National Title in club history. The Spartans, coached by NCDA alums Kevin Nguyen and Rebecca Shappell, boast two victories over Grand Valley State this year, and while they had a few hiccups in the fall, this team is dangerous. Led by All-American level veterans like Barry Butler III and Jack Girling certainly doesn’t hurt MSU’s chances this weekend. Along with those two studs, the Spartans are also getting veteran leadership from Josh Kramer and DQ McClean. Oh, and should we mention another scary good rookie class for MSU? Alec Deen leads the way for the Spartan freshmen class, with a very strong arm. Jonathan Crocket is another freshman worth mentioning. His clutch catching helped MSU claim the MDC a few months ago.
Look. Michigan State is not short on talent. But, we’ve seen that story unfold before. Talent alone does not win Nationals, nor does momentum. Michigan State has brought some strong teams to Nationals and come up empty in the past, so we want to see proof that this squad is different. Make no mistake, MSU is a historic program in the NCDA. In fact, they’ve made 11 Final Fours (second most behind GVSU)! But the Final Four isn’t enough. Just ask past Spartan teams that came up just short of hoisting the trophy. This 2021-22 group has been tasked with shifting the narrative surrounding the MSU Dodgeball program, and so far, they have been successful. An MDC title-less streak broken could be just the start. The Spartans have what it takes to be the last team standing on Sunday afternoon. Time will tell if this is the year MSU wins their first National Title.
This next tier of teams aren’t quite favorites to take home the championship trophy on April 10th, but they aren’t too far off. Let’s take a look at who could be a hot couple of games from taking home the hardware.
Seeking their first National Title since 2006, #3 Ohio State (11-4), has a solid group heading to Kalamazoo this weekend. Leading the way is the first pick in the All-Star Draft: Dylan Greer. A veteran for the Buckeyes, Greer possesses a great mix of skills with a nice arm, outstanding catching, and high dodgeball IQ. Grad student Sam Palumbo is another player to keep an eye out for, along with one of the top rookies from the 2020 COVID season, Ryan Ginsberg, and Ben Dardia. Ethan Lehmkuhl is the top rookie on this squad, and will be counted on to make a big impact, if OSU plans on making a deep run on Sunday. Bottom line with OSU, this team is in a nice spot, sitting at #3 heading into Nationals. They’ve shown the ability to take down top teams (see their win over Cincinnati), but can they do it consistently on the biggest stage?
There aren’t many teams hotter than #5 James Madison (9-5) right now, if any. This semester, they have annihilated every opponent they’ve played to the tune of a 6-0 record and an absurd 31-2 point differential. Captain Drew Funk has the Dukes rolling right now, and it’s anybody’s guess as to who will be able to stop them this weekend. Joined by long-time veteran Evan Eschenburg, Nick Spear, Pat Kaczmarek, Michael Cone, and Ben Hoare round out the well known names for the Dukes, who have had a monstrous recruiting class this year it seems. Will the Dukes continue their dominant run this weekend to the tune of the first National Championship in program history? History would indicate no, but again, this year has been a major reset for the entire league, and this weekend could be a wonderful opportunity for James Madison to change their program’s fate forever.
#6 Ohio (7-5) has exceeded everyone’s expectations since the Ohio Dodgeball Cup. Max Anthony, Alex Jonauskas, and Caleb Arnold have really done a fantastic job getting their massive young class of rookies on the same page and as developed as they have. This young team took some beatings at the 2nd Annual John Betters’ Bobcat Bonanza way back in November, but since then they have played every match incredibly well, and have impressed many along the way. Just what is this team’s ceiling this weekend? Are they a true contender, or will they fall short in say the quarterfinals? As with many other teams this weekend, if things click for the Bobcats, watch out.
Looking to make a big splash at Nationals, #7 Penn State (8-4) has shown a lot of promise so far this season. Unfortunately, we have not had the chance to see them play any opponents outside of the East Coast all season long. PSU has proven they are no joke this year, with some solid showings against #5 JMU, and even a victory over defending champion Towson. Head Captain Christian Iannuzzelli leads the charge, along with some other standout talents throughout the roster including brothers Brady and Zachary Eck, and Mason Blanchard. The Nittany Lions have never made it out of the first round at Nationals, but this year looks to be an opportunity to end that streak. This team has talent, depth, and confidence heading into the season’s final event. Look for PSU to make plenty of noise this weekend.
These teams may not be considered quite in the tier of actually contending for a title, but they are absolutely going to make noise and are a good break from seriously exceeding expectations. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that one of these teams ends up making a rather very deep run on Sunday.
#11 Towson (9-9) has had a bit of a disappointing year, particularly the spring semester. They came flying out of the gates in the fall semester, jumping out to a dominant 6-0 record. Since then, however, they’ve gone 3-9 (including 3 forfeits). Their journey out to Akron for The WAR V was not a successful one for the Tigers, dropping all four matches they played on the weekend to Grand Valley, Akron, Cincinnati, and Ohio State. With that being said, lately it appears the Tigers have gotten healthy and the right time and won their last two, including a convincing win over Penn State. Make no mistake, while this is definitely not the 2019 National Champion Towson Tigers team, they are still very, very dangerous. Semifinals and perhaps farther is not out of the realm of possibility for the Tigers this weekend.
#9 Nebraska (5-1) Frankly, we don’t really know what to expect from them because only UWP has seen them in person. However, at Cincinnati’s recent home tournament, numerous UWP players assured the Bearcats that anybody playing UNL should not take them lightly, and that they are the real deal. We’ll see soon, as the Cornhuskers, lead by leaders Dustin Sprunk and Ethan Glenn will have this team ready to play. UNL is reportedly an incredibly disciplined team, so if you overextend or make a major mistake, you should expect to be punished for it. Could the Cornhuskers shock the dodgeball world and crack the final four? Don’t be surprised..
#16 Wisconsin Platteville (4-11) doesn’t have the record to show for the pure talent they have on their roster, but they are still right there, and are a real wildcard team. They have done a fantastic job developing a young rookie class and have several incredibly strong arms to boast of, particularly Tomas Zander and Austin Kurey. While we don’t expect them to crack the semifinals this weekend, don’t be surprised if they beat several teams currently ranked higher than them.
#8 Bowling Green State (10-6) being this far down on the list despite boasting a .625 winning record may surprise some folks. Frankly, that’s because after a strong showing at the Ohio Dodgeball Cup where they upset #3 ranked Ohio State, they submitted a pretty disappointing performance at the WAR at the end of February. This content team, however, expects Bowling Green to submit a much better performance and should hopefully bring a better roster than when we last saw them. Veteran leaders Gabe Carrington, Cole Wilson, and Brandon Feltner will have their eyes on the semifinals, no doubt.
#10 Akron (10-8) has had a very see-saw type year. With a huge incoming freshman class, they have made a lot of noise, beating teams that you would not have expected them to. On the other side of things, they’ve also dropped some matches in truly disappointing fashion. Regardless, coaches Colby Briceland and Adam Pfeifer have had this young team ready to play all year, and have a real shot at making the quarterfinals.
The Upset Minded
#13 Saginaw Valley State (5-12) has certainly taken their lumps this year, playing in a top heavy Michigan region. Going up against Michigan State and Grand Valley constantly this season (as they do each year), has sped up their young talent’s development tremendously. Seeing and playing against other great teams is instrumental in developing young talent, because it’s one thing to coach it at practice but it is something else completely to play against it often. Saginaw Valley could make some noise this weekend for sure.
#12 Cleveland State (5-7) has flaunted fantastic roster numbers all season, they just need more development, particularly when it comes to their overall arm count. Sure, Joe Walsh has a monster of an arm, but he’s always been priority #1 for teams playing the Vikings all year. If CSU can get 4-5 solid arms surrounding him in the fall, this team will be tough to beat.
#18 Maryland (3-11) hasn’t had the season they’d probably hoped for, considering their record. However, they are ahead of the curve relevant to many other teams in the league as they are great on numbers, and have players with solid potential to complement the talent that has returned from pre-COVID. We expect UMD to looking to upset some teams at Nationals, but really climb the ladder as we head into next season.
#15 Kentucky (1-5), yet another team in the throes of rebuilding. They have some very strong arm talent, but need to have a strong recruiting class this fall. That should allow them to travel more and bring deeper rosters to tournaments.
More numbers -> more matches -> more experience -> more success.
The host school, #20 Western Michigan (0-6), has only attended two tournaments so far this year, and have yet to win a match. With that being said, they should have their best roster to date given they are the home team. Expect this team to be ready to compete, but they are another team that has their best days ahead of them.
#22 Miami (0-9) has done a great job rebounding this season with an impressively large recruiting class. While they will again struggle this weekend, look for them to take a nice step forward as a program in the fall.
36 Months in the Making
College Dodgeball fans have had to wait longer than they bargained for to see clubs from across the country face off at Nationals again. Finally, the next chapter in NCDA history is set to be written. This season has been an interesting one, with COVID restrictions to navigate, and a limited amount of travel from some schools, but it hasn’t been short on storylines as we head into Nationals.
Can Cincinnati complete their build from the ground up, going from a first year program to a National Champion in 4 years? Can Grand Valley claim the throne back (for a record 11th time)? Can Michigan State pry another monkey off their back and take home their first National Title? Will Ohio State get back on top after a decade and a half drought? For all the stacked JMU teams of the past, maybe this is their year. After seeing the scores they’ve put up this winter, it’s certainly possible. And seriously, how good are the Midway teams at full strength, especially Nebraska? Lots of questions to be answered this weekend.
Since the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association’s inception back in the 2004-05 season, players have carved their names in College Dodgeball history with their performances in mid-April. Nationals is where legacies are written in stone. Where seasons are made… or ruined. Where expectations unapologetically collide with reality.
Not much more really needs to be said. For the first time in 36 months, it’s time for a new set of players to etch their names in history as College Dodgeball National Champions. Who’s next?
Link to the full weekend schedule can be found here.