Defense a foundational measure for women's soccer
Clichés are a dime-a-dozen, idioms should only be used once in a blue moon, adages are mere rules of thumb, and yet all exist in some founding basis of function.
For Grand Valley State University soccer, one cliché has been put to the test year-in and year-out. One
idiom in particular has been proven to be representative more often than not. It’s an adage that might
be appropriately hung in the Laker locker room as an equivalent to the famed Notre Dame ‘play like a
champion today’ plaque.
That truth is that defense wins championships.
“I think it starts back when I started my tenure here, giving the kids a consistent message that defense
wins championships—that’s a philosophy and a tradition,” GVSU coach Dave Dilanni said. “I think
everyone wants goals, and it’s the nature of our sport that there’s not always as many goals as fans
would like, but if you can’t defend and keep the ball out of the net, it’s almost impossible to win the
And if the philosophy’s not broke, why fix it?
During Dilanni’s tenure, the numbers are staggering—particularly of late. Dating back to 2010, the
Lakers have out-fired opponents by 1,239 shots and put 681 more on goal all while out-scoring foes
by 215 goals. In 60 of their last 80 games, GVSU has recorded a shutout, a 75 percent clip, and five
games into the 2013 season, the Lakers have not allowed a single goal.
“In the past, you would see partial commitment as a team to defend,” Dilanni said. “The defenders
would obviously be defending, but we wouldn’t necessarily have all 10 players defending. This year I
think there’s been a lot more awareness to help each other out.”
Playing a centerback-by-committee rotation composed of seniors Kayla Kimble and Taylor Callen and
sophomore Katy Woolley, with senior Tayler Ward and junior Juane Odendaal typically book-ending
the starting line and senior Sam Decker, junior Alyssa Wesly and freshman Clare Carlson playing on
call, depth has been a major component of the scoreless equation.
So has time. Between Ward, Callen and Kimble, almost 14,000-minutes, about equivalent to nine days,
have been logged cumulatively on the pitch.
“A lot of us have played together for a while now so we have developed that chemistry on the field,
which plays a big factor when teams only get off a few shots a game,” Kimble said.
With many of the Laker defenders playing relatively equal minutes, there’s little separation between
rotation combinations, which are based primarily by in-game match-ups and weekly practices and
kept optimally fresh.
“I think we’ve started 16 different players this year, which is unbelievable,” Dilanni said. “I’ve never,
ever done that before.”
When senior keeper Abbey Miller, who has made saves on all 13 shots she’s seen this year, was named
GLIAC Women’s Soccer Defensive Athlete of the week, it came to the surprise of no one. After all, the
awarding committee doesn’t penalize candidates for receiving a little help from friends.
“Abbey has done exceptionally well this season,” Kimble said. “Her being very vocal and such a strong
rock in the back for us, it’s a huge relief for us backs to know she’s behind us if something were to
As talented and decorated as many of the back line defenders are—and they are both—it takes an
entire roster to effectively play the brand of suffocating and technically sound defense distinct to
GVSU soccer. In a game divided into miniature battles to be won across the field, playing on the same
page is crucial.
“Defending starts up top with the attacking players and must be played as a unit,” Callen said. “If
things break down and the ball does get in, communicating and staying organized has been really
helping us, from tucking people in to working together. I think that’ll be key for the rest of the
The results since 2010, like the numbers, speak for themselves, starting with the back-to-back titles
won in 2009 and 2010, as the Lakers finished second and third in 2011 and 2012, respectively. A
strong defense does not necessitate championship results, but with a greener, more anemic offensive
front that hasn’t yet been forced to play from behind and might not be ready to, a strong, united
defensive back hasn’t been more imperative to GVSU’s success in years.
“We’re very young up-front, and it’s going to take time for us to be able to gel and get consistency up
front,” Dilanni said. “We have lots of talent, but it’s just going to take time and the nature of the sport
is that offense generally comes later than defense. We’ve been very vocal about our upperclassmen in
the back being more consistent from the very beginning to allow our young kids to come around.
We’re not going to play scared, but we’re going to play tight.”
As GVSU’s hellacious season opening road trip rolls into Saginaw Valley State and Northwood
universities this weekend before the Lakers make their return home to play Malone on Oct. 4, a new
shutout streak rests at five games, waiting to be preserved. It’s become a tradition for GVSU soccer,
handed down from squad to squad and worthy of defending. A tradition, a philosophy, a cliché that
defines a program.
“Certainly there’s a philosophy, but then you have to have all 11 players bought in to that philosophy,”
Dilanni said. “I think there’s also been enough of a legacy that each defender and each team wants to
one-up the team that just finished. In that way, the history and the tradition (of defense) helps us out,
too. There’s competition at every spot, and I think that pushes our girls to be better.”