Tournament Recap + Big Picture Outlook following the 2024 MDC

Michigan State holds up three fingers after capturing their third-consecutive Michigan Dodgeball Cup title. PC: Kris Haas

EAST LANSING, MI – Michigan State University was victorious on Saturday at the Michigan Dodgeball Cup (MDC), earning their third consecutive title at the annual event. The Spartans rolled through their early opponents, beating Central Michigan (6-0 win), Western Michigan (6-0 win), and Saginaw Valley State (6-0 win), before a clash with Grand Valley State (3-2 win).

With the 4-0 record on the day, MSU moved to 17-2 on the season, and 5-2 against Top-10 opponents. The Spartans maintained control of the Michigan Region, winning their third-straight MDC Title as mentioned above, and they firmly positioned themselves as serious National Title contenders. All-in-all, a solid weekend for those in East Lansing.

For the other schools in attendance at MDC, it was a bit more of a mixed bag. Central Michigan (0-4 at MDC) wasn’t able to secure a victory at the event, but had some bright spots, including a near comeback against WMU. While we’re on WMU, the Broncos didn’t have their best day, losing a close match to SVSU and finishing 1-3 overall. Saginaw Valley State picked up the key win over Western to stay at the 3-spot in the region, but otherwise had a subpar day, unable to truly hang with the ‘Big Two’ in Michigan. Lastly, Grand Valley State failed to hang on to a halftime lead against MSU for a third straight season, extending their title-less MDC streak to 3 seasons (the previous record was… 1). Let’s dive into each of these teams before getting back to the Spartans, and a big picture view after the 2024 Michigan Dodgeball Cup:

Team Recaps

Central Michigan

Overall, this should be viewed as a positive weekend for the (insanely) young roster out of Mount Pleasant. The Chips returned only a few players from last year’s roster, but still had a full 12-man lineup in attendance on Saturday. That roster included 9 rookies, many of which had standout days.

Leading the way for the Chips at MDC were a few ‘veterans’ in Senior Mark Nordin and Sophomore Blake Brown. Brown in particular had some solid moments at MDC, showing off his well-rounded skill set and knowledge of the game. Beyond those two strong performers, the best player for the Chips seemed to be Freshman Jack Price. The rookie has a confident play-style and a strong and accurate arm already, making him a serious contender for February Rookie of the Month in the NCDA. Justin Osei and Aiden Ueno were a few more rookies of note for the Chips, who improved throughout the day and had a great finish against WMU where they clawed back from down 3-0 to make it a 3-2 finish. 

The biggest question mark for CMU is if they will attend Nationals. This team looks to be on the cusp of a breakout season, and attending Nationals would go a long way in their development. Who knows, by next year at this time we could be talking about CMU being back in the hunt at MDC!

Western Michigan

WMU came away from 2023 MDC feeling proud, after a big win against SVSU and a 3rd Place finish. This year: not so much. The Broncos held a 2-1 lead in that decisive matchup vs. the Cardinals but couldn’t close it out, eventually falling 3-2. That result, combined with the blowout losses to MSU and GVSU, the close call against upstart CMU, and the fact that they couldn’t field a full 12-man lineup, makes this a less than stellar day for Western Michigan.

The bright spots on this team remain their top two players in Ryan Allor and Matt Barnett, along with some strong play from a few others including Thomas Mosebach, Randy Santana-Jimenez, and rookie Daniel McArdle. WMU showed some signs of life especially vs. SVSU. This roster doesn’t possess the depth to hang with top teams, but they feel like a team that can make some strides down the stretch this season if they clean up some of their strategy and become more opportunistic with their catching. Look for this team to enter Nationals more focused and more disciplined, ready to finish the year strong.

Saginaw Valley State

SVSU secured their spot as the third best team in the region at MDC, with losses to MSU and GVSU, and wins over CMU and WMU. Cole Machiela led the way as the clear star for this team, but he was aided by strong days from Owen Folsom, Preston Cartwright, and D’Anthony Goodwin. SVSU’s comeback win over Western Michigan was special, and could be a catalyst for this team to finish the season strong. Also, their match against GVSU was closer than the score would indicate, as the Cardinals held leads in two of the three 1st-half points. This team was top-heavy all day long, but when their top players were on, they were tough to put away.

SVSU, like WMU, was unable to bring a full 12 to East Lansing. This certainly didn’t help their chances in any of the matches on Saturday, but it also doesn’t help their long-term outlook. The Cardinals need to hammer recruiting the rest of this season and heading into next if they want to remain a relevant program in the ever-expanding NCDA. Enough with that big picture talk for now, that will go at the end of this article.

Grand Valley State

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: GVSU dominated their early opponents at MDC, but fell short to Michigan State despite holding a halftime lead. Yep, that’s been the story for three years now. The Lakers moved to 10-2 on the year, with a 2-game losing streak in their matchup against Michigan State. As was mentioned above, this 3-year skid at MDC is the longest in program history, and must be even more painful considering how easily each of those results could have gone the other way.

The Lakers were led by the usual suspects, with Ben Smart, Matt Budai, Alec Gonzalez, Aidan Jacobs, and Darnell Hurse-Rimpson all having big impacts. In the end, the stars for GVSU didn’t have their best performance in the second half against MSU, and the Spartans took control in crunch time. This Lakers team is difficult to read. GVSU had (by their standards) a mediocre regular season last year, but followed that up by storming to the title game and finishing an overtime away from a national title. This year, once again, GVSU doesn’t possess the best resume (1-2 vs. Michigan State and no other wins against Top 10 opponents), but could the Lakers still be title contenders? NCDA fans everywhere will need to see more from GVSU down the stretch to get a better gauge as to where they stand nationally, but for now, it’s another disappointing finish to an otherwise impressive day at MDC.

Michigan State

The Spartans are once again champions. This roster has improved immensely from the start of the year, and even showed the ability to bounce back after a recent loss to Ohio State. MSU dominated each of their early matchups at MDC, not surrendering a single point until the GVSU matchup. The Spartans really flexed their depth in those lopsided matchups, getting plenty of valuable reps for their young core, and giving their top arms more rest time leading up to the final match.

Matt Barriball and Nick Fedewa are the big two on this team and played like it on Saturday in the big moments. Both had strong performances and clutch plays in the GVSU match. Plenty of other players could be mentioned as standouts yesterday including rookies Eric Rapp, Alex Edson, Ryan Polisei, and more. The key for MSU though, may have been the improvement of their other 2nd-year guys (besides Barriball and Fedewa). That group includes Zach VaFleet, Thomas Swanson, and Jacob Rademacher, all of which had major impacts for MSU in key moments. The young core on this team is scary good, but again, more on that when we talk big picture below…

Big Picture Takes

There are a lot of ‘big picture’ takes below spanning various subjects. Not sure how many would be considered ‘hot takes’, but some are certainly spicier than others. All of them seem like worthwhile topics for any NCDA fan to read following another MDC weekend. Enjoy:

Best Rivalry of the 2020s?

Here’s an obvious one. Michigan State vs. Grand Valley State is looking like it will be the best NCDA rivalry of the 2020s, and we are only in year 3.5ish (Covid made math hard here). The 2020 MDC pre-Covid came down to GVSU vs. MSU, with the Lakers winning 3-2 in OT. Covid ended that season early so that result may be lost in history a bit. That obviously was followed by the lost season of 2021, and then the last three MDC finals where MSU took down the Lakers in each. That’s 4-consecutive MDC ‘title games’ between these two. Add on the fact that GVSU and MSU have met in each of the last two NCDA National Title Games, splitting the pair… yeah this rivalry is in peak form.

It’s just hard to imagine another matchup will surpass MSU-GVSU this decade. Even if one of these two programs falls off a cliff in the near future, the amount of classic, and just overall high stakes games we have seen in this rivalry have made it seem like a near lock already for that ‘rivalry of the decade’ distinction. For those asking, the 2010s was GVSU-CMU followed by GVSU-SVSU, with JMU-Kent sprinkled in there somewhere higher than the average reader might expect…

The New Standard

It’s officially official. Big picture take: Michigan State is the new standard in the Michigan Region. The Region that has long been dominated by Grand Valley State is now officially in the hands of MSU. Let’s take a quick look back: 2022, MSU wins their first MDC in 17 years. Epic game. Felt like the tide was turning. GVSU responds by winning Nationals to remain the top program in the sport. 2023, MSU wins another epic MDC comeback over GVSU, and finishes the year 19-0 with their first National Title. The Spartans lose an all-time great senior class, so questions remain if they can sustain their success. 2024, MSU and GVSU trade blows early in the season, but for a third-consecutive year the Spartans win the Cup. Safe to say this program can maintain their level of play, so it’s time to make things official. Until proven otherwise, Michigan State is ‘The Standard’, and it’s on GVSU (or CMU or SVSU or WMU) to wrestle that label away from them.

Now let’s dissect why MSU has become the new top dog. A lot of struggling programs need to review this part word for word and emulate it:

Recruiting consistency. Michigan State has had stellar recruiting class after stellar recruiting class dating back all the way to the 2017-18 class. Their 2020s classes have been on another level. The “Core Four” class from 2019-20 obviously were the major catalysts in their title-run of 2023. The 2021-22 class was labeled the #1 rookie class in the country and was headlined by National Rookie of the Year Alec Deen. Their 2022-23 class was arguably even stronger, with the 2nd and 3rd best rookies nationally in Nick Fedewa and Matt Barriball, along with several other current standouts on the roster who were mentioned above in the MSU section. Yeah, and the 2023-24 class seems to be shaping up nicely as well with 1st-Team All-Rookie lock Eric Rapp, along with several other players who already have earned starting roles. Some schools can put together a great recruiting class one year. Few schools can do it year after year with the consistency that the Spartans have.

That leads to the next reason: Leadership / Player Development. Coaching is a cheat-code in the current NCDA. Sorry if this is news to you. Having alumni who step up and aid the program can make a world of difference in the on-court play for a team. It also is helpful just in regards to the overall stability of a program. The recruiting success certainly is in part thanks to the work of Kevin and Becca Nguyen, along with the rest of the staff (including Bryce Belen who is now also helping CMU develop!). Few teams have played as organized as MSU over the last couple seasons. Few teams have developed (and retained) their talent as well as MSU has either. Seems fair to hypothesize that good leadership and coaching has aided in those areas. Oh, by the way, expect similar success from Becca Nguyen and the MSU women’s program. That already is very much in the works with MSU at #2 nationally behind Akron. Let’s be clear though, program stability can still be achieved without coaches, and that stability is what every national champion team has had leading up to said title. Good leadership goes a long way, and you can’t discount the leadership from the MSU players during this period. This is a college club sport and will always be run by the players in the club. That combination of good leadership from the players, and that added strategic advantage / team stabilization provided by coaches is obviously working at MSU. This topic could be discussed for hours but we will keep it brief: strong leadership helps NCDA teams level-up, and Michigan State has certainly done so thanks to their current coaching staff and team leaders over the past few seasons. This happens to lead to the next take…

2025 / 2026 National Title Favorites

We’ll see what happens this year. Ohio State currently has a better resume (and a recent win) over the MDC Champs, but when it comes to 2025 and 2026, the title favorite seems to be Michigan State. Calm down, person from [insert school in Ohio], this isn’t a shot at you as much as it is an observation of that stability and recruiting success that is happening at MSU. One thing that stood out at MDC was the depth of talent on the MSU roster, the vast majority of which was from underclassmen. Michigan State had 7 freshmen and 6 sophomores on their MDC roster. And quite a few of them were major pieces to the puzzle for MSU already. MSU graduated a bunch last spring, including the infamous ‘Core Four’, but this roster has made up for those losses with an army of young, talented athletes.

Looking ahead to 2024-25, MSU will only lose Nick Fedewa and Tyler Marks (two great players) off this roster. That’s a lot of talent returning. And as we just mentioned, 13 players from this MDC Title roster should be back again in 2025-26 based on their class standing. That is scary.

This isn’t to say that no other program is going to be able to rise above the newfound success MSU is having, but if there were Vegas odds released right now for the NCDA champ in both 2025 and 2026, it’s hard to imagine MSU wouldn’t be atop both those lists.

Roster Size Concerns, Serious or Just Temporary?

MDC had five schools in attendance, three of which showed up with less than the maximum roster size permitted by the NCDA (18 players). In fact, two of the teams in attendance had under the starting on-court number of 12 players. This is a concern, not just in the Michigan Region, but nation-wide.

Some scenarios are certainly different than others, and this is never going to be a thing where the blame just falls squarely on the shoulders of the current team captains at each school. It’s far more nuanced than that, but nonetheless, it’s a problem in the NCDA right now.

Low roster size comes with a number of consequences both immediate and down the line. Fatigue at tournaments is an obvious side effect, and one that undoubtedly plagued some of the teams in East Lansing on Saturday. Having a full 18 takes a lot of the load off your starters. Spreading out throw responsibilities makes tournaments a lot easier, especially events with four games in a day! Low roster count also hurts the quality of practice. Let’s be real, if you can’t practice a full 12v12 scenario, your team will be less prepared for gameday. Those are but a few of the immediate issues with this.

Long-term problems for programs is what really draws the concern when it comes to small rosters. Club stability (a theme in this article) is greatly impacted by club size. Clubs with 30+ members are far less likely to go defunct as opposed to struggling programs that may only have around 12 active members (and could graduate half their club in any given year). On top of the defunct club issue, future success for programs is greatly influenced by past roster size. This is why B-Teams are such an untapped cheat code in this league. A club that retains 30+ players each year (by offering B-team tournament experience to their lower end players) is far more likely to have a skilled and experienced A-Team roster each tournament. Programs that can build up their rookies before throwing them into the fire are far more well-positioned to win than a team that adds new players and instantly has to place them in the lineup by necessity. Not to mention how much easier it is to retain club members when they don’t have to instantly be a top 12 or 18 player at the school in order to see the court! 

These issues are self-explanatory, and the entire league will easily understand them. The issue isn’t convincing people that club depth is important, it’s figuring out how we can help club sizes increase league-wide. That is a bigger discussion for another day, but team leaders using the NCDA Recruitment and Retention staff as a resource is a good first step. Making B-Team participation the norm (especially in the fall, shortly after the main recruitment period) is another answer, but that is easier said than done. Again, discussion for another time, but the biggest threat to the success of the NCDA seems to be roster size / club stability.

Will MDC Ever Recover?

“Remember when MDC had aura?” – Former NCDA President Hunter Ford.

Yikes. He’s not wrong though! The Michigan Dodgeball Cup was once the premier event of the NCDA regular season, no debate. MDC used to feature 3 (usually 4) of the top teams in the league, and would often be called a preview of the Final Four at Nationals. This clearly is no longer the case. Not a shot at any of the current teams in the region that aren’t title contenders, that decline happened over time with many factors at play. Who is to blame isn’t the debate for today, but rather, will the MDC ever get back to that place? Or even close to it? Do you envision a season in the future where the Michigan Region again has 3+ Final Four teams (as it has in 12 of the 17 full NCDA seasons), or has league expansion / the spreading of talent taken us to a place where that sort of geographical concentration of success is not doable? Time will tell. 

Author: Kevin Bailey

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

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