EAST LANSING, Mich. – These things sound familiar to Michigan State sport fans: a top-10 ranked football team and a trip to the Final Four last season.
But the Final Four team isn’t just MSU men’s basketball, but also the Spartan club dodgeball.
Team captain Colin O’Brien and the Michigan State Club dodgeball team appeared in the championship game in 2013, the Final Four in 2014 and the Elite Eight in 2015, but they have proved that winning is no easy feat.
“We are going in the wrong direction,” O’Brien, also the club’s president, said. “But this year I feel like it will be different.”
Although past seasons have not ended in their favor, the team has made their mark in the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association.
“When talking about dodgeball, most people don’t even think of it as an outlet in college,” O’Brien said. “But coming to MSU I wanted to change that.”
O’Brien joined the team as a freshman in 2013. Since then, he has been a large part of the team’s success.
“The club team was founded by Aleks Bomis in 2003 and the NCDA started shortly after in 2005,” O’Brien said. “MSU, Ohio State University, Kent State University, DePaul University and Delta College were the first to be involved and MSU held the first tournament. After that the league really started to grow.”
J’Mel Johnson, a MSU alumni, was on the club team from 2006-11. He is still close to the team today, serving as a mentor.
“As an alumni there are things I can teach,” Johnson said. “I can help the younger players evolve and I can help keep the team on track.”
Johnson’s connection to the MSU team comes from his passion for dodgeball.
“When I was on the team we were always pretty strong and had strong contenders – but we seemed to always find a way to fall apart,” Johnson said, adding a laugh. “But now with this team Colin [O’Brien] has really been a leader. He studies the game and is very open to new plays and ideas, which is something we struggled with before.”
As the association has developed, so has MSU’s team. There are now nearly 30 players on the roster and 15 take the court for each game.
“We play on a full basketball court,” O’Brien said. “At first when there is 30 people out there it’s a little hectic, but once a few are eliminated the game almost gets easier.”
O’Brien said his teammates’ skills have improved, which has helped to develop the team.
“The hardest thrower on our team can hit speeds in the 70s,” O’Brien said. “I can throw the ball 64 mph.”
Players achieve the high speeds by using a technique called “grip throwing,” which involves pinching the dodgeball between the fingers and palm. This allows them to throw faster and curve the ball.
“Basically with grip throwing you hold the dodgeball in a way where it is more deflated, which allows for a better grasp on the ball,” O’Brien said. “This technique is part of what hooked me to joining the team – I wanted to learn how to use it.”
O’Brien’s team hosts tournaments along with travels around the Midwest to play different teams in the NDCA, however, traveling is not part of the club’s budget.
“Pretty much everything is paid out of pocket,” O’Brien said. “Between dues, uniforms, and all travel related expenses it comes to about $150 per person each season. I think it’s awesome that my teammates are willing to pay because it shows their commitment. We all realize that we have to pay out of pocket but traveling is part of the whole experience.”
O’Brien is hopeful for the future of the program.
“Unfortunately, in my time here, we haven’t been able to win the championship, but more so than years past I feel like we could win it this year,” O’Brien said. “Especially with our win over GVSU to start the season - that was the first win over GVSU in our program’s history.”
This year the team is trying to focus on team building and chemistry, which would set them apart from opponents.
“I’ve made a lot of friends through dodgeball and on the court we do care about winning, but in the end we are college students playing dodgeball – it is not a life or death situation.”
The team’s next game is at Kent State on Sunday, October 11.