After reaching 200 wins, Grand Valley State's Dilanni reflects on 11 seasons
ALLENDALE, Mich. -- Milestones are usually a cause for celebration, but Dave DiIanni has never paid much attention to them. So when DiIanni earned his 200th victory as head coach of Grand Valley State on Sept. 20, he thought nothing of it.
One could say it is because of the success he has already enjoyed with the Lakers. Since taking the job in February 2003, DiIanni has guided GVSU to a pair of national titles, six final fours, 10 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and eight consecutive Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) championships.
Most coaches can only dream of such accomplishments. DiIanni, however, expects those things from himself.
"I don't think we should ever lose," he said. "That's very unrealistic, but that's certainly the bar I set for myself and our kids."
Losing is not something the Lakers have done very often with DiIanni at the helm. Through the past 11 seasons, GVSU has amassed a 203-18-18 record. Out of all those victories there are three DiIanni will never be able to forget.
During his first year, the Lakers hit the road to take on Northern Kentucky, arguably the best team in the Great Lakes Region. Grand Valley State was overmatched, but a group of seniors wanting to change the perception of the program did just enough to pull off a 1-0 upset.
"We certainly weren't the better team, but we did enough to win that game," DiIanni said. "I think that was a huge momentum push for our kids to believe they have something going on."
The unlikely victory propelled the Lakers to a 16-1-2 record in the regular season and their first NCAA tournament appearance. GVSU topped Wisconsin-Parkside, 4-0 before it was knocked out by Northern Kentucky in the regional final. Still, DiIanni managed to lay a strong foundation to build the program around.
By the end of the 2005 campaign, the Lakers had won their first GLIAC title and made a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. One important task remained for GVSU to realize its full potential, though. Beat Ashland.
DiIanni and the Lakers ended Ashland's run of eight consecutive league championships in 2005, but they had never managed to beat the Eagles.
On Oct. 8, 2006, GVSU finally broke through and took down Ashland, 2-0.
"We got over the hump," DiIanni said. "There were a lot of members of the team that had never beaten Ashland and only heard stories of them being the best in the conference. And they had been. For us to finally beat them was really special, because of the moment for our kids."
A little more than a month later, the Lakers rolled into their first NCAA final four with victories against Quincy, Indianapolis and Nebraska-Omaha. Once there, a 2-0 victory against Tampa vaulted GVSU into the national championship game. Although DiIanni's club fell to Metro State, 1-0 in overtime, belief had been created amongst everyone in the program.
"Even though we lost to Metro State, that seemed like it was the pinnacle of firsts," DiIanni recalled. "All our eyes were wide open wondering how the heck we got there. We should've won that game, and we didn't, but it just set the bar even higher... that set the standard for everyone else after that."
The rest, as they say, is history.
GVSU went on to post back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2007 and 2008. From 2009-10, the Lakers notched a 44-1-6 overall record and won the NCAA Division II national championship twice. DiIanni's club returned to the national title game in 2011 and advanced to the final four once again in 2012.
How have the Lakers managed to dominate the rest of the nation? Defense.
Under DiIanni, GVSU has held 161 opponents without a goal. It is already apparent DiIanni has one of his best defenses this season. Through seven games, the Lakers have yet to surrender a goal and are holding opponents to less than eight shots per contest.
Winning at home has been a priority for DiIanni as well. GVSU boasts a 108-4-5 mark against visiting teams.
While the rise to national prominence has been far from easy, the most daunting task is one DiIanni is facing right now. Figuring out a way to stay on top when everyone in the country is gunning for his team.
"I think the ability to sustain this is a little more challenging. When you have the level of success we've had at the national level in the last seven years with the players we've had, it makes the target very big," DiIanni said. "But, it's exciting, too. That's one thing we've embraced.
"You have to work at it every day. I think our kids have done a fantastic job of doing that. Full credit goes to them, but it is a little bit more difficult now than it was at the beginning."
This is why the three-time NSCAA Great Lakes/Midwest Region coach of the year does not have time to think about winning 200 games, or everything else he's already achieved. He has become the hunted, not the hunter.
What does it mean to him, though?
"It's a lot of games. I'm getting old," DiIanni laughs. "Honestly, it means that we've had kids who have been unbelievably committed. They're the ones winning the games. I'm just the recipient of those wins."
DiIanni's biggest victory at GVSU has come off the pitch, though. Alumni support for the program is at an all-time high, something no one could say a decade ago.
"They're the ones who have set the standard and created the pathway and foundation (for the program)," he said. "The alumni coming back and wanting to be a part of it is easily the most prideful moment I've had here as a coach."
Hearing all the things he has managed to do for the Lakers on the pitch, including the fact he has the highest winning percentage (.887) among active Division II head coaches, makes him pause momentarily.
Then, as only DiIanni can do, he remains humble, shares the credit and deflects the focus away from his personal milestones.
"I don't think much about that," DiIanni said. "It's a lot of success. It makes it very exciting to come to work every day. I still get up in the morning, race to work and can't wait to get here and work with the players we have here at Grand Valley State.
"The fact it has all happened in 11 years is humbling. I've been surrounded by a lot of good kids and coaches."