November 19th, 2015

Knights to play defending national champion GVSU in Sweet 16

Adam Pruiett

Bellarmine University Assistant S.I.D

Knights to play defending national champion GVSU in Sweet 16
Jordan Major and the Knights are preparing to face Grand Valley State in the Sweet 16 / photo provided by Bellarmine athletics

At first, it might sound suspicious. But most, if not all, of those who follow Division II women's soccer would nod earnestly in agreement when Bellarmine University head coach Chris Tinius says this about Grand Valley State:

"It might be the best dynasty going on par with — or ahead of — Alabama football and UConn women's basketball. It doesn't get the publicity because it's D-II women's soccer."

Don't believe him?

Over the last six years, Grand Valley State won four national championships. The Lakers captured titles in 2009 and 2010 and went back to back again in 2013 and 2014. In the four years in which it secured rings, GVSU lost a combined three matches and won a minimum of 22 matches each season. Oh, and the Lakers were the national runner-up in 2011.

By anyone's definition, top-ranked Grand Valley State is in the midst of a dynasty, and 14th-ranked Bellarmine is tasked with attempting to dismantle the Lakers' bid for a third-straight national championship. The second-seeded Knights (17-2-2) and top-seeded GVSU (20-1) will meet in the Midwest Region finals of the Division II NCAA Tournament at 1 p.m. (ET) on Friday at host Central Missouri.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for what Grand Valley has accomplished over the last decade, but (Lakers Coach) Jeff (Hosler) has jumped right in the last two years to keep it going and, if it's possible, maybe even raised the level," said Tinius, whose squad lost 2-0 to the Lakers in last year's NCAA Midwest Region semifinals. "The good thing is we don't have to match their 10-year run or even win a series — we have to compete for 90 to 110 minutes."

Doing just that has driven Bellarmine to a landmark season. The Knights have set the program record for overall victories while following their first-ever Great Lakes Valley Conference regular-season title with an unprecedented appearance in the Sweet 16. BU secured its berth in the NCAA Midwest Region final with a 1-0 victory over No. 23 Truman State behind a phenomenal goal from junior Lexy Hazle in which the All-GLVC defender fired a shot into the upper left corner of the net from approximately 40 yards out early in the second half.

"We've been very successful because we've had a remarkable commitment to the process and trust in each other this season," Tinius said. "We need to keep that as the focus and put our best product on the field."

After falling 3-0 to Quincy in its season opener despite a 25-7 advantage in shots, Grand Valley State proceeded to win 20 straight matches, capping that stretch by gaining revenge against Quincy with a 6-0 romp over the Hawks in the regional semifinals. The Lakers average 4.6 goals per game, piling up 96 this season while allowing only seven.

Sure-thing National Player of the Year candidate Marti Corby — the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year — has recorded a gaudy 62 points on 23 goals and 16 assists, but the conversation extends much further when it comes to Grand Valley State's weapons offensively. Kendra Stauffer has amassed 14 goals and nine assists, Gabriella Mencotti has collected 10 and eight, Katie Klunder eight and nine, and Samantha Riga nine and five. Three other players have accumulated five or more goals.

"Grand Valley has a tremendous depth of talent in attacking positions," Tinius said. "They also have the GLIAC Defensive Player of the Year (Clare Carlson), but their best defense is a relentless attack. You aren't going to keep them from creating chances. What you have to do is try to limit the quality of their chances. They can certainly score great goals, but they are pretty clinical in finishing the goals that you are 'supposed to score' and the ones most teams let slip away a couple of times each game."

Bellarmine's calling card this season has perhaps been an organized defense that has notched the most shutouts in program history (15) and features All-GLVC performers in Hazle, senior center back Jordan Major, junior holding midfielder Sydney Kraus and sophomore goalie Taylor Smith, who combines with junior keeper Hannah Poteet for a dynamic net-protecting duo.

Up front, the Knights will counter Grand Valley State's stingy defense with junior forward Mary Beth Gorham, the GLVC Offensive Player of the Year who has set a single-season program record for points (31) behind a record-tying 12 goals and seven assists. Junior All-GLVC midfielder Lauren Holder has tied the single-season mark for assists (eight), while senior forward Darcy Egan and sophomore forward Katie Fernandez have both chipped in five goals.

Bellarmine's success hasn't been built around explosive offense, but the Knights have only been shut out twice and have outscored opponents by a 3-to-1 ratio, a testament to their consistency and discipline.

"We are typically a pretty good possession team," Tinius said. "We will need to be solid defensively, but we also need to make sure we keep the ball when we can to try and make them chase a little bit. We have a couple dynamic attacking players ourselves that will need to be assertive and opportunistic with our chances whether we create five or 15."

Bellarmine is in the midst of its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last seven years, but the regional final is uncharted territory for the program.

"This is a very exciting experience that we need to embrace," Tinius said. "We have taken steps forward as a program this fall, but there are no shortcuts to where we want to eventually get. If you want to be in the conversation with the best, this is the type of game you want to play in — a regional final against the defending national champions."



No. 2 seed Bellarmine (17-2-2) vs. No. 1 seed Grand Valley State (20-1)

Date: Friday, November 20

First kick: 1 p.m. (ET)

Site: University of Central Missouri


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