2024 MDC Preview

This week the five college dodgeball teams from Michigan will make their annual descent on East Lansing, Michigan, and compete for the Michigan Dodgeball Cup. This tournament has a long, storied tradition in the league and usually serves as a good barometer as to who are contenders and pretenders as the league inches closer to April. Historically, the team that wins the Michigan Dodgeball Cup has found itself in the driver’s seat of the National Title race.

With all that said, this year is looking to once again be a two-horse race at the top. Michigan State University is looking to defend not only their MDC Title but also their National Title, while Grand Valley State University is looking to play spoiler and bring both trophies back to Allendale. You don’t often hear the Lakers labeled as potential spoilers, but this is the first time in recent memory that neither one of the trophies (MDC, National Championship) are in the possession of the 11-time National Champions. 

By Tony Stumpo and Owen Israels

The Favorites

Let’s start with Michigan State. They are the two-time defending champions of this tournament and are looking for a 3-peat. They return only 2 of their OT6 from the 2023 National Championship match (Nick Fedewa, Matt Barriball) but the cupboard is hardly bare for the host Spartans. The Spartans have done a great job in the post-Covid era of not rebuilding, but rather reloading. Looking beyond the tandem of Fedewa and Barriball is the sophomore who could be their X factor this weekend: Zach VanFleet. If VanFleet starts catching in bunches as he is capable of, it will shift the whole dynamic for the Spartans and make them a far deeper team. If not, then they have to rely more heavily on younger players. Speaking of younger players, the Spartans have several freshmen of note this season (what else is new?). Let’s start with Eric Rapp who may be emerging as a contender for National Rookie of the Year, along with some other folks we will mention later on. Beyond Rapp, Alex Edson and Patrick Lafferty round out another stellar recruiting class for the Spartans.

Look for Michigan State to try and use their recent loss to Ohio State (and an OT scare from James Madison) as extra motivation coming into ‘The House that Bomis Built’. Despite being the defending champions, the doubters are starting to show up, so expect these Spartans to have a little chip on their shoulders. As Head Coach Kevin Nguyen told me, “The game plan is to just get back to playing MSU Dodgeball.”

Kevin Nguyen and Nick Fedewa celebrate after winning the 2023 National Championship

After Michigan State are the always dangerous Lakers of Grand Valley State. For the first time in a long time, the Lakers are the hunters as opposed to the hunted. This team is hungry to prove that they still belong in the conversation at the top of the league. They graduated several of their OT6 players from last year’s instant classic with the aforementioned Spartans, but depth is rarely an issue for the Lakers. Matt Budai and Ben Smart will once again be counted on to anchor the offense, but look for key contributions from veteran Alec Gonzalez and first-year captain, Mason Smith. Alec Gonzalez could quietly be the X-factor as he just seems to do everything right on the court, and like VanFleet for MSU, can get hot with his catching and turn a point around. A key question for this Laker team will be how well Joe Barber continues to fit into this lineup. No team will say no to adding a guy who can catch well and throws 70 mph, he just needs more time to gel with this lineup. Finally, if the Lakers hope to upset the Spartans in East Lansing, they will need to continue their tradition of player development. Michael Budai (younger brother of Matt) and Justin Chiodini will be two key first-year starters who will be counted on to help make plays down the stretch. 

A new look for the new Laker, Joe Barber

Don’t expect Grand Valley to just accept the role as the second fiddle in the Michigan Region; they are looking to prove they are still the premier program in the NCDA. Bringing the Michigan Dodgeball Cup back to Allendale will go a long way in doing just that. 

I predict that the championship on Saturday will come down to the final queue of matches and the winner of the Michigan State-Grand Valley match will ultimately hoist the trophy. I will stop short of predicting an outright winner since I will be in the booth for this one, but I do predict a hard-fought, close game as they always are between these two bitter rivals. 

The Potential Spoilers

Saginaw Valley State over the last few seasons has not been the Saginaw of old where they are competing year in and year out for that MDC Championship spot. The Cardinals are improving though, and continue to take steps in getting back to being one of the premier dodgeball teams in the country.

This is Cole Machielas’ team and as he goes they will go. He is the leader of this program on the court, and if he plays smart and can be the field general for the Cardinals they will have the ability to stay in games and be competitive. Other names have stepped up for SVSU with Kyle Krupp playing in some big spots for them so far this year. He has been around and is a good veteran presence in this lineup. Then a younger, lesser-known name on this roster to keep an eye on this weekend is #00, Caden Pierson. This year he has shown improvement by showcasing some catching ability along with his development in understanding the game. He has been a bright spot on the Cardinals’ roster this year and looks to be a key piece moving forward.

Now, the expectation for Saginaw this weekend. Is it to win the whole thing? Yes, probably. How realistic is that? Not very. Realistically they come in as the 3rd best team in the region and would have to have an all-time performance, I’d think, to move any higher than that this weekend. Michigan State and Grand Valley State have too much firepower and talent for the Cardinals to overcome them both. BUT, could the rivalry of the Battle of the Valleys be reignited with a classic GLIAC dodgeball matchup? Does Joe Barber changing allegiances light a fire under the Cardinals? Or does the 1,828-day drought since their last win vs MSU at MDC 2019 finally get them? We will find out Saturday. 

Cole Machiela and Caden Pierson will look to lead SVSU Saturday

Western Michigan has had an interesting year so far. This is the year that many pundits expected the program to take the next step and challenge to the top 8 or even final 4 at Nationals in April. That’s not to say that they cannot still do that, all of their goals are still in front of them, but the Broncos come in ranked 16th with a 5-6 overall record and 2-4 against the rest of the Michigan Region. If this team wants to truly take the next step as a program they can make a statement this Saturday in East Lansing. Last year, these Broncos were the upstart program that was happy to get an upset victory over Saginaw Valley, but they should have bigger aspirations now.

If Western is to make noise this weekend they will rely heavily on the arms of Captains Matt Barnett and Ryan Allor. These two are now the undisputed veteran leaders of this program and will need to come up big. Both of these guys are capable of getting anyone in the league out at any time, but they’ll need others to step up and make plays as well. Their roster is littered with veterans and as Barnett said, they need to “focus on building us up as a team and less about individuals”. The X factor for the Broncos is the potential return of 2nd-year player Alex Marczuk who could provide a nice boost for them down the stretch. 

The Rebuilders

Central Michigan comes into MDC looking to establish their rebuild. This is a program that is no stranger to rebuilds, and they are squarely in year 2. Having 5 rookie starters means a few things. It means that they are one of the more inexperienced teams in the region, but it also says that they had some success during this latest recruiting cycle, and valuable experience at a tournament as stacked as MDC will go a long way. Can they play spoiler and steal one against Saginaw or Western? That remains to be seen, and their lack of depth will be put to the test on Saturday. Expect this team to play hard from start to finish. 

The Chips got a good win for the program at the Dr. Peter Broe Classic when they took down Concordia University-Wisconsin, led by senior Tadhg Allen. Allen gets lost in the shuffle a bit because Central has struggled as a team, but make no mistake, this guy can flat-out play. He is always one of the best athletes on the court and has a knack for clutch catching. If Allen can stay on the court and catch in bunches, it will go a long way towards a CMU upset bid but if Allen struggles it could be a long day for the Chips.  

The league is better when Central Michigan is contending, and we hope to see this team take a leap forward this weekend.

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