Tyler Peach is a Laker.
Not one of the Los Angeles variety, per se, but rather an Allendale, Michigan one.
He’s also a part of the most storied – and successful – college dodgeball program in the country. The Grand Valley State University dodgeball team has captured 11 of 16 national titles since the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association was founded in 2005.
When you think of dynasties in college sports, most tend to think of the modern Alabama football teams or 1990s Tennessee women’s basketball or “The U” back in the day.
But there are several non-traditional programs continuing this type of dominance today. GVSU recently captured its 11th national title this year after a 20-2 season. Peach, a former president and now co-captain of the team, is pleased to be a part of history.
“It’s cool to see we’ve been able to keep up with past years and continue to compete and win over such a long period of time,” Peach said. “Just to be a part of that, it’s pretty cool.”
Peach might be used to the top, but other schools and athletes are trying to tackle the competition in their respective sports and activities.
In the world of collegiate table tennis, besting Texas Wesleyan is the unified goal of every program out there.
Table Tennis Titletown
Texas Wesleyan might be the best team you’ve never heard of.
The program claims 73 national championships, doing so in men’s and women’s singles, coed doubles, men’s and women’s doubles … basically, if there is a division of table tennis, the team has captured a title in it at some point since their run started in 2002. The score of accolades the team has amassed includes an 11-year coed team title run that stretched from 2004-2014 as well as graduating Olympic talent.
So how is Texas Wesleyan able to keep its dynasty chugging along?
Partly because of its top-tier coaching staff. Jasna Rather, a former Olympic bronze medalist, has coached the Rams for 16 seasons and was selected in the TXWES Hall of Fame. The team’s women’s coach, Doru Georghe, was the U.S. Women’s National Team’s head coach for 18 years and is a 15-time Romanian National Champion who was named to the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame.
Willy Leparulo, who also serves as the president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA), has dealt with the Rams on multiple fronts. He said the success trickles down from the funding athletic directors give to the table tennis programs.
“The universities that do well in college table tennis, they all fund it,” Leparulo said. “From the funding comes resources, and from resources comes success. That’s the name of the game.”
Dallas Baptist is the only other university to offer scholarships in collegiate table tennis. Leparulo said table tennis is a sport whose success depends on the amount of resources athletic directors are willing to allocate. Some teams find success for a period of time, until resources are cut or the sport is abandoned.
These resources feed into the brand the Rams have built. The available funding, coupled with a storied history and talented pool of recruits, have given Texas Wesleyan an edge.
“They’ve almost got a mythological status,” Leparulo said. “Everyone who enters college knows they’re chasing Texas Wesleyan.”
All in the name
For Peach and GVSU, the sport of dodgeball is different.
Peach said the team awards no scholarships and has a coach only during some seasons. There are no cuts – other than designating players who don’t make the cut for the “A” team roster to the “B” team – though numbers have dwindled slightly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The only recruiting the team does is through tabling during a campus event with other teams and clubs. Unlike other sports, there’s no large-scale effort – just local or interested students wanting to chunk some rubber.
Peach himself didn’t know he’d be on the team. He said when he arrived on campus, he knew there was a squad, but it took an invite to a practice from a friend to be introduced to the sport. He said he fell in love with it, and it was evident the level of competition when he joined the team.
“When I first got there, I realized how competitive it was,” Peach said. “At first I didn’t realize how much better we were than a lot of the other teams. But it kind of showed after the first tournament where the standard of how we should be winning and what we should put into practice to get to a point where we’re winning.”
Peach said the team focuses on playing a diverse and tough schedule to help prepare them for the postseason.
“I think a lot of it stems from we’re always playing those top teams,” he said. “We go to tournaments in Ohio, we’ll go to the East Coast to play top competitors just because we know we’re a top competitor and we want to have that challenge, whereas there are some teams like in Wisconsin where they might not make the drive out to play a better team because they’re not as good and don’t want to lose. They’re just playing themselves at practice which it’s harder to get better from.”
And the results don’t lie.
The Lakers played five of the top six teams by record during the regular season. Their only two losses came to Michigan State – the fourth-best team by record – although they bested the Spartans twice, including in the championship game.
Another aspect of the dynasty is the style of play. Peach said GVSU runs a quicker style of play that teams aren’t used to.
“If we play faster and at a certain level of intensity, a lot of teams won’t be able to keep up with that, which is prevalent in a lot of our wins,” he said.
And winning is something that they know well, even without a dedicated coach.
Peach said coaches – when they have them – are often team alums that come back to pursue an additional degree. With or without one, Peach said the upperclassmen and players with seniority rise to the role to develop new players into the championship caliber that the Lakers expect.
“I think it really comes down to teaching the incoming freshman and any rookies that come out,” Peach said.
On another level (or two)
A dynasty is hard to hold for a period of time, but Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, has two.
The Lion roller hockey program competes in two levels of competition in the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA) – and runs them both.
Their Division I team captured its 11th national championship this season, defeating Slippery Rock in the finals, 7-2. Division IV is just as storied, if not more. Fifteen of the 17 national championships held in NCRHA Division IV since the 2003-2004 season have been captured by Lindenwood.
Coach Jonathan Hilke has been on both sides of the coin. He graduated from Lindenwood in 2007 and was part of three of the program’s national championships as a player. Now the head coach of the D-IV team and assistant coach of the D-I team, he can see one of the keys to success is the caliber of coaching from his peers.
“Having five coaches that are totally bought into what we do here is a tremendous advantage,” Hilke said. “Each of us work year round to get the word out about Lindenwood Roller Hockey.”
Not only do they have one of the larger coaching staffs in the country, but they have scholarships. As in table tennis, this helps give the Lions a leg up, especially when it comes to attracting the best talent to St. Charles.
“Recruiting plays a big role in the longevity of a program,” Hilke said. “You’ll see some teams be very competitive for a handful of years then all of a sudden disappear. More than likely the players that helped put the team together moved on, graduated, etc.”
Different sport, different challenge
At the end of the day, it depends on the sport and the competition to keep a dynasty rolling. For Lindenwood, it’s a dedicated coaching staff and its focus on recruiting. For Grand Valley State, it’s just the name. For Texas Wesleyan, it’s a combination of it all (and resources).
But will there ever be a changing of the guard in some of these sports? Leparulo said the competition is coming closer.
In this year’s NCTTA finals, Texas Wesleyan didn’t find itself in the championship game. While the team took third place, two non-scholarship schools – NYU and Indiana – faced off for the coed title, the first time in program history that Texas Western wasn’t in the championship game. This result could be the fruit of American-born players choosing to stick with the sport in college.
“A lot of these high schoolers who are still playing the sport are looking at colleges that have table tennis versus the past where they would go ‘no I’ll just go to college and table tennis is dead to me,’” he said.
Before recently, it was common for U.S. players to put off play until after college or as late as their early 30s to continue their careers. Leparulo said as American players choose to play, competition will increase in the league, leaving schools who recruit international talent – like TWU – to improve studies and other parts of the college to keep up.
And while Leparulo and his Florida State Seminoles, along with the rest of the nation, try to keep Texas Western out of the title game this year, he notes there is something special about the Rams and the dynasty they’ve built.
“There’s no doubt everyone wants to beat them,” Leparduo said. “Also – in the back of their minds, they might not admit it – everyone wants to be them as well, because they’re just so great.”