By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
ROCKFORD – “Dynasty” is too easily thrown around in describing sports teams.
But East Grand Rapids’ girls lacrosse program has earned that level of distinction with its success over the last four seasons.
The top-ranked Pioneers’ finished their fourth straight MHSAA Division 2 championship run with a 19-6 win over second-ranked Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood on Saturday at Rockford High School.
In doing so, East Grand Rapids also made it four seasons without losing to a Michigan team, a streak that began with the first game of 2012. The Pioneers finished this spring 24-1, losing only to the team from Medina, Ohio, while picking up wins as well on the road at Illinois powers Hinsdale Central and Wilmette Loyola Academy.
“It was a goal of ours to send a message throughout the state, and the country. And we went out and played Illinois teams, and succeeded,” said Pioneers senior Liza Elder, who finished her final season as one of the top single-season and career scorers in MHSAA history. “We had a lot of girls playing together for a long time, and I just think we were great leaders to the underclassmen and really bonded this year.”
East Grand Rapids’ last loss to a Michigan team came in an overtime Regional game in 2011 against eventual Division 2 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Total, the Pioneers are 92-5 over the last four seasons – with seniors Elder, Jane Goodspeed, Emily French and Elle O’Connell part of the lineup for the entirety.
“Two years ago, the class of 2013 has a similar run. They took a little longer to jell, but this senior class had those upperclassmen to bring them along,” East Grand Rapids coach Rich Axtell said. “This class is clearly our best class, the best team we’ve ever put on the field. They set a really high bar for the underclassmen, and the underclassmen know it.”
A total of 12 seniors also played roles on the 2014 championship team before helping the Pioneers take another step toward an unprecedented run. No other team has won four straight titles in MHSAA girls lacrosse history; two other teams won three straight.
Only three opponents this season scored in double figures on East Grand Rapids, which beat reigning Division 1 champion Rockford twice among its most notable instate wins.
“If a team beat us, they could claim that for years and years,” Pioneers sophomore Lindsay Duca said. “Our coach emphasizes that we can’t have a bad day. We can’t let one thing upset us; if one person is playing badly, the whole team has to pick each other up.
“(The Medina loss) was a couple weeks ago, and we came right back at it, really motivated.”
Cranbrook Kingswood scored first Saturday, only 45 seconds in on a shot by senior Maddy Weber. The score was knotted 2-2 after 10 minutes before Duca scored the second of her five goals to start a 5-0 run. Elder had two of her seven goals during another five-goal run during the second half.
Elder finished this season with 119 goals, second most in one season since lacrosse became an MHSAA-sponsored sport in 2005. Duca also had five assists Saturday.
Cranbrook Kingswood (18-4) played in its first MHSAA Final, led by first-year coach Greg Courter, who formerly coached girls lacrosse in California and Colorado.
The Cranes eliminated three top-10 teams during the tournament, and their other three losses this season were all by only one goal apiece.
Freshman Isabelle Scane had three of the team’s six goals and an assist, and Weber – one of six seniors – scored twice.
“I said (to my team after), someday we’ll be holding up the other trophy, and when we do that, it will be dedicated to the seniors,” Courter said. “This is our first year together, and we give them all the credit for us making to the state final for the first time ever.”
PHOTOS: (Top) East Grand Rapids claimed its fourth straight Division 2 championship Saturday. (Middle) The Pioneers’ Liza Elder (9) moves the ball upfield with Cranbrook Kingswood’s Leah Dolik giving chase.
Alyssa Shaver has made a habit of getting women’s lacrosse programs off the ground.
Her first year in the sport was the first year of the program at Flint Carman-Ainsworth. Her collegiate career involved playing in the inaugural seasons for both University of Detroit Mercy and Lawrence Tech University.
As a coach, she led the first team at Urbana University in Ohio.
When she left Urbana for Lincoln Memorial University, a Division II program in Tennessee, she had an opportunity to take over an established – albeit still relatively new – program.
Two years in, another chance to start a program arose, and she once again stepped up.
However, this was not a different school – but in a different sport.
The 2008 Carman-Ainsworth graduate recently finished her third year in charge of the LMU women’s lacrosse program, and is now preparing for Year 2 in charge of the women’s field hockey program at the school – coaching a sport she had never played and rarely seen.
“I had not watched ‘Ted Lasso’ but when people figured out what I was doing, they told me about it,” Shaver said. “Last fall I started watching it and I was like, ‘Oh God, this is my life right now.’”
Starting with a new sport was how Shaver’s athletic career got jump-started in the first place.
She was a volleyball, basketball and softball player prior to high school, but when her basketball coach brought up the idea of starting a lacrosse program at Carman-Ainsworth, she decided to give it a try. The connection was almost immediate.
“I didn’t know what (lacrosse) was,” she said. “But I put a stick in my hand, and it felt like the most natural thing. I was a point guard in basketball, and I had played basketball since I could walk. I think in lacrosse, the footwork, defense, concepts and ideas are similar to basketball. But when I picked up a stick, it was like, ‘I get to carry this ball around? I don’t have to dribble it?’ From there, it kind of clicked.”
Shaver was a remarkable scorer at Carman-Ainsworth, racking up 226 goals during her four-year career. That included 81 goals her senior season.
While at Carman-Ainsworth, she also continued playing basketball and volleyball.
“As a point guard in basketball, I didn’t really care about scoring,” she said. “In lacrosse, I was really good at offense and scoring. I was a setter in volleyball, so my other sports I was always setting other people up.”
Her success at Carman-Ainsworth and at the club level led to an opportunity to play for U-D Mercy’s new program, led by coach Mary Ann Meltzer. Shaver was an academic all-conference selection during her time there and played for two years before coming back home.
While she was no longer playing, she continued to coach, something she had started while a freshman at Mercy.
It was while coaching a club team that the opportunity to return to playing at Lawrence Tech presented itself.
“It was terrifying,” Shaver said of returning to the game after two years away. “I would play in summer league, and I always had a stick in my hand because I was coaching, but I hadn’t really played competitively. I was 23 and most of my teammates were 18-year-old freshmen. I always joke with them now – some of them are my best friends – but the first couple years, they didn’t want to talk with me and I thought they didn’t like me. It turns out, they were scared of me.”
Shaver played three seasons at Lawrence Tech, earning All-America honorable mention from the National Women’s Lacrosse League in 2014 and first-team NWLL All-America honors in 2015 and 2016. She also was named an All-American by the NAIA as a senior.
Prior to her third season, with Lawrence Tech in need of a coach, Shaver reached out to Meltzer, who had recently retired from U-D Mercy. The two were reunited at LTU, and Shaver and her teammates reaped the benefits, reaching the NWLL championship game, which they lost 9-8 in overtime. Shaver was the NWLL National Offensive Player of the Year.
In 2017, with Shaver on the coaching staff, Lawrence Tech advanced to the NAIA national title game.
“She’s pretty much responsible for a lot of our program at Lawrence Tech,” Meltzer said. “She was the driving force in recruiting kids. She had taken a couple years off, and I think when she came here she was that responsible and was kind of the go-getter in getting players and getting people interested in LTU for quite a while. Fortunately, we’ve done well.”
In 2018, Shaver took over at Lourdes (Ohio), leading the program to its first winning season in her first year.
After two years at Lourdes, she took over Urbana, building the program from scratch. She took over the LMU program prior to the 2021 season. The Lady Railsplitters were 2-5 her first season, but have gone 12-7 and 10-9 in the two seasons since.
Shaver taking over the field hockey program alongside her lacrosse duties wasn’t the original plan. But after things fell through with the coach originally hired for the job, and with some of her lacrosse players signed on to play both as well, the LMU administration turned to her.
“I have a lot of experience with new programs with lacrosse, and the girls were so great and super appreciative,” she said. “My lacrosse players have some experience, and a lot of the field hockey girls were just awesome and understanding, and helping me learn.”
Shaver is learning the game and was able to get some help from volunteer assistant Khotsofalo Pheko, a former runner at LMU who played field hockey in South Africa before coming to Tennessee.
Meltzer has faith in her former player to navigate all of it and find success, even if she told Shaver she was crazy for taking on the field hockey job initially.
“Obviously she has the work ethic, and she’s going to do what she needs to do to be successful,” Meltzer said. “As coaches, especially younger coaches, when things aren’t going well they think that more is better when sometimes less is better. I think she just needs to be patient; we all do. That’s the biggest thing. With her, starting so many programs – we’re all competitive, we all want to be successful really quick – it is going to take time.
“She’s an incredible person. She has a heart of gold.”
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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Alyssa Shaver takes the field for Flint Carman-Ainsworth, and at right she coaches at Lincoln Memorial University. (Middle) Shaver just finished her third season leading LMU women's lacrosse. (Below) Shaver (bottom row, fifth from left) was a four-year player at Carman-Ainsworth, including on this 2007 team. (Photos courtesy of Alyssa Shaver and Lincoln Memorial's athletic department.)