Return to Prominence: The Resurgence of the Central Michigan Dodgeball Program

CMU fell off the collegiate dodgeball map shortly after winning the national title in 2011, but thanks to the dedication of the leaders on their current roster, the Chippewas are once again considered an elite team.


cmu-logoIt was the conclusion of the final day of NCDA Nationals, held at Western Kentucky University on April 10, 2011.  Central Michigan had just won the national title over Grand Valley State University in what many still consider the most exciting college dodgeball game ever played.  The National Collegiate Dodgeball Association’s landscape seemed to have drastically shifted.

It appeared that Central Michigan had taken the throne from GVSU as the top program in the NCDA after years and years of dominance from Grand Valley.  In fact, GVSU had won the previous four national titles, three of those seasons they went undefeated.  But CMU had finally accomplished the ultimate goal of winning the national title, taking the lead over the Lakers with only seconds to spare to earn the victory in that game.

After beating GVSU at the Michigan Dodgeball Cup (MDC) the previous year, and finally taking home the National Championship Trophy in 2011, the opinion around the NCDA was that Central Michigan was now arguably the most envied program in college dodgeball.  With the amount of talent on the CMU roster, it seemed as if they would be the best for seasons to come.

Central Michigan won their first-ever college dodgeball national title in 2011.
Central Michigan won their first-ever college dodgeball national title in 2011.

Fast forward exactly three years to Nationals 2014.  The difference in CMU Dodgeball was polarizing.  CMU lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NCDA tournament in 2014, to cap off another subpar season.  It was their second straight season with a first round exit at Nationals.  Even worse, CMU struggled to field a full 15-member lineup at the previous season’s Nationals.  It hadn’t been a successful stretch for the once dominant program.

Now, here we are in March of 2015.  Central Michigan sits at #2 in the nation, with their eyes set on winning a national championship again.  With a roster filled with both experienced veterans, and talented young players, it seems like the Chippewas are back on track.

Central Michigan appeared to have hit rock bottom in the years following their first ever college dodgeball national championship, but what is even more interesting is the way that they have seemingly recovered from that awful stretch of seasons.

After falling off the collegiate dodgeball map shortly after winning their national title in 2011, the Chippewas are once again considered an elite team in 2015, due in large part to the dedication of the leaders on their current roster.  Here’s how it all happened:


Falling off the Map

What exactly went wrong with Central’s program following their NCDA title back in 2011?  It wasn’t that CMU just began to play poorly out of nowhere. The decline was due to a few factors.

Brett Hadwin, currently a senior captain for Central Michigan, was a member of the 2011 championship team, and he witnessed the deterioration of the program that occurred over the next few seasons.  “I believe the decline of the team was caused by a couple factors,” Hadwin said.  “We thought that the recruiting would handle itself, and we had people on the team in the past that tried to weed out future players before they could even develop.”

Wes Peters is one of three current members of the CMU club that was a part of their national title season in 2010-11.
Wes Peters is one of three current members of the CMU club that was a part of their national title season in 2010-11.

Wes Peters, another senior captain for the Chips had similar things to say regarding the team’s failure to build on the success they had the previous year.  “I believe that a few things led to the decline of our program after we won the national title in 2011.  First, we had a big majority of our returning players feeling like they were burned out from dodgeball and didn’t have much interest in continuing to come to practice twice or three times a week anymore,” Peters explained.  “We had a definite lack of caring to recruit from our leadership. I think we only ended up recruiting two new players going into the 2011-2012 season,”

The repercussions of these actions started to take effect the season following their title.  Central Michigan finished the year with a pedestrian 7-3 record, losing to GVSU in the quarterfinals at that season’s national tournament.

The nightmare did not just end there for CMU, it actually got even worse.  “The low point of our program, in my opinion, was realizing that we were going into the 2012-2013 year, with Brett and I having just taken over as captains along with Bryce Corrion still being here, with a grand total of five returning players,” Peters said.  “It was a real shot in the gut when we could only recruit maybe 5-8 people to join the club throughout the year as well.”

During the 2012-13 season, the Chippewas seemed to fall off even more.  Central was no longer a competitive program due to their inability to even field a full 15-man starting lineup, let alone having another five players to fill out the bench on a 20-man roster.

Central had an underwhelming performance at the annual Michigan Dodgeball Cup that season, going 0-3 against their in-state foes.  CMU was outscored 11-1 at that tournament.

Nationals 2013 was yet another disappointing weekend for CMU.  The Chips were once again unable to bring a full roster, and it came back to bite them as they dropped their first round match to Ohio State by a score of 3-1.

CMU finished that year with a 6-9 overall record.  This was the first losing season for Central Michigan since their inaugural season in 2007-08.  It’s safe to say Central Michigan’s dodgeball program had seen better days.  “That two year span of the team crumbling as the season progressed to turning into literally almost nothing was incredibly depressing,” Peters said.

Since 2011, GVSU, SVSU, and MSU have all reached the title game at least once, while Central has only managed to reach the quarterfinals once in the same time frame.

CMU had a poor performance at Nationals 2014, losing in the first round to University of Kentucky.
CMU had a poor performance at Nationals 2014, losing in the first round to University of Kentucky.

After winning it all in the spring of 2011, the Chippewas limped to a 21-25 overall record over the next three years.  These three years included 19 losses at the hands of the three other Michigan schools: Saginaw Valley State, Grand Valley State, and Michigan State.


Rebuilding the Program

Every team faces adversity at some point.  What defines the team is how they are able to respond to the adversity and improve.  For CMU’s dodgeball program, facing adversity was basically the norm, in the years following their title.  Central Michigan was in the middle of the worst 3-year stretch in the team’s history.

The captains on the CMU squad had to take it upon themselves to rebuild the team.  This was no easy task considering the Chippewas didn’t even have enough people to field an entire roster.

“A lot of different people played a big role in bringing the team back to the position we are in today,” Peters said.  “It definitely started with Brett, Bryce and I sticking with things that first year when we lost everybody. We had a lot of different ideas that we threw at the wall.  Of course, we didn’t manage to recruit a lot of new people to the team in 2012, but those that we did get and retain showed a ton of promise and a high level of skill playing the game, very quickly.”

Jacob Leski's leadership was instrumental to CMU's rebuilding process.
Jacob Leski’s leadership was instrumental to CMU’s rebuilding process. – Photo Credit: Alan Holben

The good news for CMU was that they had the right leaders in place to spark a resurgence.  Both Peters and his co-captain Brett Hadwin agreed about one player in particular, being a catalyst in terms of the rebuilding process.

“Jake Leski, after his first appearance at Nationals in 2013, after being on the team for maybe two months, he took it upon himself to come back the next year and start recruiting a lot of players,” Hadwin said.  “This compiled with the persistence of the leadership of this team begging people to come out and play and getting continued membership.”  Those comments were echoed by Peters who said “Jake Leski staying with us and helping recruit (in 2013 and 2014) was a definite plus for us.”

Leski, took on a leadership role in 2013, and made a big impact in the improvement of the club.  “The start of our 2013-2014 season saw us with only 7 returning players,” Leski said.  “We were desperate for new members so we took it upon ourselves to recruit as much as we possibly could.  ‘Mainstage’, a big recruiting event, was a big helper for getting new players but the struggle was keeping people around. That’s why we made it a priority that each returner made an effort to get to know each new member and to make them feel a part of our team the moment they stepped into our gym.”

After a few tough seasons following the 2011 title, CMU’s leaders now had a much better idea of how to improve their club.  Leading all the way up to this season, CMU has continued to innovate, in an effort to create a club that will run more efficiently.

At the end of the 2013-14 season CMU elected their first formal executive board, which was an important step for the club.

Brett Hadwin has helped CMU transition as a team after a few years of struggling to even have a full 20-man roster.
Brett Hadwin has helped CMU transition as a team after a few years of struggling to even have a full 20-man roster. – Photo Credit: Alan Holben

“I believe this year was a pivotal year at the end of last year a lot was changed in how the team is managed and this year we are still ironing out some kinks,” Hadwin said.

“This season, we implemented our first ever Eboard, which was made up of the President,  VP, Recruitment chair, fundraising and other positions that could help us grow as an organization and become more involved with our school community, which in turn brings in more recruits,” Leski explained.  “We also started team dues which required every person that wanted to play or buy a jersey to pay a small fee which helped finance road trips, tournaments, and other costly ventures.”

Central Michigan was not what they used to be during those years of first round exits at Nationals, but the rebuilding process has started to take effect.  Looking back at the efforts CMU’s club leaders made, it is obvious that they did a good job.  CMU has a full 20-man roster now, and it is filled with talent.


Positioned for Success in 2015

If CMU is able to win the NCDA title in 2015, Ian Ryan will be a big reason why.
If CMU is able to win the NCDA title in 2015, Ian Ryan will be a big reason why. – Photo Credit: Alan Holben

Central Michigan was victorious in just one national tournament bracket match over the past three seasons.  CMU has a losing record over that same time period and an unmentionable record in games against teams from the state of Michigan.  Despite all of these depressing facts, the club’s leaders kept moving forward in their effort to make CMU Dodgeball great again.  Don’t look now, but the rebuilding project is all but complete.

Central Michigan has stormed their way to a 21-8 record so far in 2014-15.  That record is good for #2 in the nation.  Oh by the way, they haven’t lost to a team not named Grand Valley since September!  It’s safe to say that CMU is back to where they belong: near the top of the NCDA.

Despite not beating GVSU yet this year, Central Michigan has shown promise, with several matches that have been close and competitive against the Lakers.  CMU came in second place at the annual Michigan Dodgeball Cup this season; the best finish by the Chips in three years.

Mike Heller has been one of CMU's best players so far this season.
Mike Heller has been one of CMU’s best players so far this season. Photo Credit – Alan Holben

Looking at CMU’s roster, it is difficult to find too many weaknesses.  Starting at the top, Jonathan Milliman has taken over the role as coach for CMU this year.  His knowledge of the game paired with his ability to view the game from the sideline will give CMU an advantage moving forward.  Milliman, along with Hadwin and Peters are the only members on the current roster that were on the CMU team that won it all back in 2010-11.

The captains on this team (Peters and Hadwin) have obviously been around for years, and they are two of the more recognizable players in the league.  The assistant captains (Scott La Valley and Zach Bachner) are both smart experienced players as well, and both are very dangerous as catchers.

The list of Central’s strong core players does not simply end there.  Michael Riley is back after missing the first half of the season, and his strong arm and competitive attitude will be a huge asset to this team.  Leski is another key player on this year’s team.  His catching abilities have been crucial to the team’s success on several occasions this season.

Despite being a rookie, Alex Holzgen has been a player of impact for CMU in 2014-15.
Despite being a rookie, Alex Holzgen has been a player of impact for CMU in 2014-15. Photo Credit: Alan Holben

Shane Willette has been an impact player for CMU many times this season, with strong catching skills and a good arm.  Kevin Greig is one of CMU’s more experienced players and his catching has been key for CMU numerous times this year as well.  Second year players Ian Ryan, Mike Heller, and Kris Kohler have all made an impact on the team’s success, and in turn, they have earned themselves much deserved respect throughout the league.

CMU’s recruiting efforts have continued to pay off as well, with first year players Kaleb Haney, Joe Kobus, and Alex Holzgen all earning spots on the varsity roster.  Holzgen (#59) is arguably the most notable of the rookies, after his strong performance at the MDC he was in the discussion for possibly earning the league’s “Baller of the Month” award.

A reader who is unfamiliar with this year’s CMU squad might think I am exaggerating a bit by naming this many players as notable performers, but the truth is, CMU has some serious depth.

It is amazing to think that a team that two years ago barely had enough players to field a team, now boasts one of the deepest rosters in the league.

The 2014-15 season is winding down.  CMU only has two tournaments left on their schedule, but both will be huge tests.  The CMU Showdown takes place on Saturday, March 21, while Nationals takes place April 10-12.  Do I even need to mention that Nationals this year will be held at Western Kentucky?  Last time Nationals was at WKU, the Chips were the ones hoisting up the trophy.

The return of Mike Riley to the CMU roster has been a huge boost for the Chippewas.
The return of Michael Riley to the CMU roster has been a huge boost for the Chippewas. Photo Credit: Alan Holben

Will CMU be able to repeat their success down in Bowling Green, Kentucky this spring?  Ask anyone on their current roster and you will receive a resounding yes.

“Our expectations for this season are to win the national title. Plain and simple,” Peters said.  “Last year that goal was a bit too lofty to be a realistic expectation with so many new players joining the team and just getting a feel for the game, however talented they might have been right out of the gate. This season we have done an even better job recruiting, and a fantastic job, in my opinion of continuing to develop the young players we’ve picked up the past two seasons and making them into stellar dodgeball players. This season it really is championship or bust.”

Peters, and Hadwin would love to have a fitting finish to their careers as CMU dodgeball players, both of them started out with a championship in their first season.

“My expectations for this team are that we execute the game like we know how to, and then if we can do that I believe we have the talent and the knowledge to win it all,” Hadwin said.  “If we can get people behind this new era of Chips Dodgeball, I can graduate happy knowing the team will be good down the road and will not have to fall off like it had in the middle of my career here.”

CMU has had some impressive accomplishments following their downward spiral from 2011-2014.  Central has reclaimed their position as a top tier college dodgeball team nationally, thanks in large part to their strong play so far this season.  With less than a month left in the season, the Chips have the opportunity to finish 2015 with a national title.

Even if Central comes up short this April, there is no question that the Chippewas are once again an elite team, and this time around, the club’s leaders have laid the groundwork for a very bright future for the program.

“It has definitely been a roller coaster of change since the day we raised the national championship trophy back in 2011,” Peters said.  “But we’re finally back for good, having given ourselves and our future team members a foundation to build upon in the future.”

Central Michigan Dodgeball has improved tremendously over the past year.  This spring, the Chippewas have positioned themselves to compete for their first national title since 2011.
Central Michigan Dodgeball has improved tremendously over the past year. This spring, the Chippewas have positioned themselves to compete for their first national title since 2011.

Author: Kevin Bailey

Current NCDA Chief of Content. Former Captain for Grand Valley State University (#4).

5 thoughts on “Return to Prominence: The Resurgence of the Central Michigan Dodgeball Program”

  1. Great article Kev! Even though I lived it, it is amazing to see how this program has progressed these last to years. Gave me chills and a great feeling of accomplishment to read this and I know it couldn’t have happened without everyone mentioned here. Thanks man means a lot to not only me but the rest of the people responsible for turning this program around.

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