'Freshmen Five' fit in fast at GVSU
First-year players highlight promising future for women's hoops
GVL / Robert Mathews
When freshmen first arrive at Grand Valley State University, they are rounded up during an orientation program called “Transitions” and tagged with lanyards — filled with schedules, maps and other guiding content — to be worn around the neck.
The lanyards are for the benefit of the incomers, as is the Transitions program, but both leave a mark. Freshmen, who have a tendency to travel in flocks, can be identified with ease anywhere they go until they build up enough courage and comfort to remove the lanyards.
However, the 2013-2014 GVSU women’s basketball team is not a division of classes manifested on the court. There are no sheep. There are no lanyards.
When the five members that compose the Laker class of 2017 — forwards Kayla Dawson and Piper Tucker, guards Taylor Lutz, Keyara Wiard and Janae Langs — have been identified, it hasn’t been for being rookies.
“Our freshmen have been great for us,” lone senior Dani Crandall said. “They came in with a ton of talent but had to transition from high school basketball to college basketball, where the pace is so much faster, there’s a shot clock and other nuances.
“They have handled themselves very well and have made the transition with ease.”
The freshmen outnumber Crandall 5-to-1 and, by count, make up a third of the roster. They also, by count, have accounted for about a third of the team’s statistical production in a variety of categories, despite only making 10 combined starts.
As a collective unit, the freshmen have logged 30.6 percent of the Lakers’ available minutes on the court; have scored 21.4 percent of the points; collected 27.4 percent of all rebounds; and contributed 31.4 percent of all assists, 26.7 percent of steals and 41.0 percent of all free throws made.
Freshmen members have also led GVSU in scoring six times in 16 games this season and in rebounds nine times.
“To have three freshmen in the rotation on a consistent basis is huge,” Crandall said. “Extremely huge. That doesn’t happen at other programs. Our freshman are truly that good, and they’re building their confidence — getting more comfortable with the ball and being on the court — every time out.”
In a season-opening performance against Truman State University on Nov. 22, Tucker led GVSU with a game-high 15 points and six rebounds. The Lakers won the game 81-68.
In a 74-67 victory against Lake Superior State University on Jan. 23, Dawson tallied a career-high 24 points and 11 rebounds to become the first Laker to record a double-double on the season. It was her fourth time leading the Lakers in scoring in the last five games.
In that same victory, Lutz made her first career start as a Laker and produced 14 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Not just freshmen, but starters. All three have started together in the Lakers’ last two games and have improved with every game and every practice.
“They’re doing great things that are pushing the older kids to get better, and there’s friendly competition all over our team,” Crandall said. “It’s nothing personal, and more times than not, when somebody shows someone else up, there’s a pat on the butt afterwards, but it’s that healthy competition that makes us better.”
The freshmen categorize themselves as “close” but have been also categorized by their work ethic. They frequently visit the gym together to get in extra repetitions and have also noticed the value of the exchange between upper- and underclassmen.
Not entitled. Not satisfied. Hungry.
“Our leadership that we have on our team has helped us to transition as much as anything,” Dawson said. “Without Dani or Meryl (Cripe) or Kat (LaPrairie), our captains, we wouldn’t be producing or adjusting the way that we are. They’re leading us through it and helping us to become better players.
“The older girls will point things out to us and teach as we go, but we also learn just watching.”
Head coach Janel Burgess has also noticed the dynamic.
“The thing that makes them special as a class is their collectiveness,” Burgess said. “They’re a driven group, probably the hardest-working class that I’ve ever recruited, and their success has come because they’re gym rats.
“They were talented when they got here, but they’ve really bought into the system, learned from more experienced teammates and have grown a ton since they got on campus.”
Dawson is the team’s third leading scorer with 9.1 points per game, and she ranks fifth in rebounds. Tucker is fifth in scoring with 6.3 points per game and fourth in rebounding. Lutz is tied for sixth in scoring with 5.6 points per game and is second on the team in assists.
Not novelty outliers, but consistently relied upon producers.
“They’re getting so many valuable minutes — minutes that in all reality, have made them sophomores for us,” Burgess said.
Dawson was a semifinalist for Miss Basketball of Wisconsin as a senior — a two-time team captain who was not only rated as a top-five defender in the state, but also a state champion in 2012.
Lutz was a two-time Northern Indiana Conference first-team selection and finished runner-up in the state finals.
Tucker was a member of the Lansing State Journal ‘Dream Team’ and helped her team finish in the state quarterfinals as both a sophomore and a junior.
Not just producers, but winners.
“They know how to win,” Burgess said. “They’re competitive and refuse to think about anything that doesn’t concern the team’s benefit.”
GVSU’s version of the “fabulous five” have not donned high-top fades, intentionally baggy shorts or black socks, but they have left an identifiable mark. The kind of mark that can be seen from afar — like a lanyard.
It will be interesting to see how bold of a mark the five can leave with 10 regular season games left and three full years of eligibility to follow.
Not freshmen. Student-athletes. Ready and able now, brimming with talent and potential.
“We’re representing pretty well as a class, pushing the upperclassmen, and it’s good for the team,” Tucker said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.
“We’ll hopefully get more wins in upcoming seasons, go further in the GLIAC, win some championships, but we also want to continue to play well together like we are now. That’s how we can build on what’s already here at GVSU.”