Family First: The Dennis Towns Story

A team is a family. The phrase has been used so often in the sports world lexicon that it’s prone to sounding trite or cliché. A team is a family. Is it predictable? Maybe. Overused? Possibly. But clichés are also this: they are true.

To say A team is a family is to recognize that athletes and coaches bond together for relational reasons as strong and real as blood relatives do for genetic ones.  And at Hope, to say A team is a family is to also know that those familial feelings extend far beyond one team to encompass an entire athletic program, from administrators to support staff to parents to even spectators… for the sake of all and for the sake of one.

Just ask Hope junior basketball player Dennis Towns.

Late in a game during his freshmen year at Hope, Towns was flying. A gravity-defying leap for a rebound — a Towns’ trademark lifted high a hundred times before in DeVos Fieldhouse — looked so superhuman that his hang-time bordered on the surreal. Well, at least it did until he landed. Reality hit when Towns came down to earth.

Here, let him tell you.

“There was about 30 seconds left in the game and we were on defense and the other team missed about five layups in a row.  So, I kept jumping for the rebound and eventually on the last one, my foot was kind of turned inward a little bit.  So, when I came down, the outside of my foot landed on top of someone else’s foot. And I was coming down from a high jump, too.  Anyway, my ankle rolled almost completely over and dislocated and slid right out of place.  I didn’t feel anything break, but when I sat down and looked at my foot, it was like, ‘oh, my goodness.’  I had never been injured previously up until that point. Like never!  I had never missed a game in high school or college.  Just seeing that was mind blowing.”

The “that” that Towns saw — as well as most in attendance in DeVos — was a foot pointing in a direction that no human foot is meant to point. It was turned out in an almost perpendicular manner to the side of his leg, a wrong-way right angle.

“The support that everyone in the building showed my mom that night was very touching, and I knew that it was very genuine.”

Towns grabbed at his ankle in panic and pain. Gasps went up and then silence came over the crowd. Hope’s athletic trainers sprang into action while the faces of teammates and coaches expressed immediate concern. And in the stands, Towns’ mother, Carol, was distraught.

“When she saw that, she was just very flustered. The support that everyone in the building showed my mom that night was very touching, and I knew that it was very genuine,” says Towns, a native of Flint, Michigan, and graduate of Flint Powers Catholic. “That’s one thing I am very grateful to the Hope community for because my mom was hysterical. She had never seen me hurt before.   Everyone was offering to help — the athletic trainers, basketball parents and even spectators. And of course, Coach was there for me and her too.”

After x-rays confirmed no break but a severe dislocation and after Carol Towns realized her son would be well cared for and play again at Hope, Dennis Towns went about the arduous work of rehab, hours of physical pushing and, of course, patience. And the support for the Townses kept rolling in. A get-well card was sent to Dennis from Hope basketball fans in attendance at a H-Club luncheon; athletic trainer Tim Koberna and jayvee coach Chad Carlson attended his first doctor’s appointment along with Carol; and, text and email messages of concern and well wishes dinged notifications of concern and encouragement to both of their phones.

“I mean, people I didn’t even know from Hope were checking in and asking me how things were going for Dennis,” offers Carol. “The support we received from the whole Hope community was phenomenal.”

By his sophomore year, Towns was ready to play again; his ankle healed, he became an integral cog off the bench during Hope’s 2016-17 MIAA championship season. This year, the computer science major, who also dabbles in piano and speaks Japanese, is projected to be a starting forward.

“Dennis can shoot that mid-range baseline jumper, which is kind of a no man’s land shot, but he loves it,” says Mitchell, now in his fourth year as Hope’s head coach. “Every day with Dennis seems like this explosion of potential and just a kind of joy for the game. He has an energy that reverberates.”

“I feel I can always go to him for anything. I think that will remain even after I graduate.”

Those are words Towns appreciates though they’re not totally new to his ears. Mitchell has not only been a coach but a mentor to Towns, a voice of encouragement and direction.

“Coach has been confident in me from the beginning,” Towns says.  “That’s one thing I can definitely say about our relationship.  I’ve always felt like he believed in me as a player and a person.  I’m glad that is a quality that he has because last year, being a sophomore on varsity with all the upperclassmen, it was like you can fall into a funk, wondering if you’re going to play.  But, Coach always was there to encourage me to work hard.  When I’m on the court, I’ve always been someone to give it all I have.  He sees that and encourages that. I feel I can always go to him for anything. I think that will remain even after I graduate.”

“That’s who we all are at Hope. Maybe a lot of folks don’t realize that from the tri-fold brochure, but I think once they are here, they quickly see that Hope is a place that cares deeply about players and students.”

A team is a family. And not just for one season but beyond. For Mitchell, coaching basketball is as much about loving people as loving the game… and in that order.

“I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I just think that’s the best part of coaching,” Mitchell explains. “It isn’t practice; it’s the relationships. It’s seeing Dennis’ mom getting emotional about the love she received that night (of his injury) and how everybody just kind of helped her decompress and assured her that everything was going to be okay. As she’s walking from the arena to the training room and then heading to the hospital, it was really hard for her. And so I think the support of Hope and our coaching staff and our team was reassuring.”

“But that’s what Hope is,” he continues. “That’s who we all are at Hope. Maybe a lot of folks don’t realize that from the tri-fold brochure, but I think once they are here, they quickly see that Hope is a place that cares deeply about players and students…. I would much rather get invited to a player’s wedding than have him score 20 points. Lifelong relationships are what this is all about.”

Then Mitchell pauses and smiles and adds,

“But if I’m being completely honest, the 20 points is good too.”

Author’s Notes:

Learn a bit more about Dennis Towns here.

Gaining a Global Perspective Through Sport

I play lacrosse for Hope, and it’s my absolute joy to wear the orange-and-blue jersey. I also play for another team, and it gives me great pride and pleasure, too. I play team handball for Team USA, and I recently got the opportunity to do so in Croatia. Although my trip was not part of my official curriculum as a history and economics double major, it was an unique educational experience and could not have happened without the support of the Hope College community.

I grew up playing lacrosse in the Detroit area but in the summer of 2012, I came upon team handball while watching the London Olympics.  I really liked how fast paced the sport was, and it seemed like something that would help keep me in shape for lacrosse.  I did a little bit of research and discovered that the only handball club near me was located all the way in Chicago. Luckily, my family took a vacation to Chicago later that summer, and I found a way to practice with the club. That was my first time playing the sport, and I was hooked! I later formed a de facto club at my high school, Detroit Catholic Central, and continued to play casually with my friends.

In the fall of 2014 I heard about an open tryout for the US U21 national handball team in Chicago, naturally I signed up to attend. After a few fun but grueling days, I was put on the reserve team, which is a fancy way of saying I didn’t make the cut. A few months later though, the coach of that team emailed me asking if I’d be willing to play in a tournament in Sweden. Since then, I’ve practiced with that original team in Chicago every few months, and have practiced with another team in Chicago (which is coached by the U21 national team) about once a month, in addition to training with the Olympic team a couple of times.

In fact, for most of my coaches and fellow campers, I was the first American handball player they had ever seen.

Playing a modified version of tag with my buddies Niclas (Finland), Youssef (Egypt), and Rasmus (Denmark).

This summer, an opportunity to play in Croatia came about and there was no way I could turn it down. I attended the International Handball Goalkeeper Camp, an annual weeklong training camp in the coastal resort town of Omis. The camp’s reputation has attracted some of the best handball goalkeepers and coaches in the world. To draw a comparison with football, it would be like attending a quarterback camp with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matthew Stafford in the Bahamas. I was lucky enough to have been accepted to the camp last summer, which made me the first American ever attended. In fact, for most of my coaches and fellow campers, I was the first American handball player they had ever seen.

Working on a reflex exercise at camp.

Over 90 goalkeepers attended the camp, and about 26 countries were represented. There were two training sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Each session was led by a coach and player, and would emphasize a different aspect of goalkeeping. Not only were the coaches and players world class, they were also very down to earth and willing to help. Borko Ristovski, the goalkeeper for Macedonia’s national team and Barcelona, would stay after every session and shoot penalty shots with younger goalies. Roland Mikler, the national team goalkeeper for Hungary and one of my favorite pro goalies, was at nearly every training session and gave specific feedback to the athletes. My training partner one day might be a professional goalkeeper from Egypt or a nearly 7 foot tall athlete from Finland.

Hearing these different viewpoints gave me a more nuanced understanding of how the U.S. is perceived by different people and gave me the chance to represent the United States to these people in a personal way.

Walking around town with my friend Eske, from Denmark, and Dan, from Spain.

I may not have many things in common with someone from Denmark or Croatia, but on the handball court, we were able to start a dialogue that carries into mealtime and rest time (luckily, almost everyone spoke fluent English). Most of the conversations would take place in the hotel’s pizza shop. I was amazed at how naturally a conversation about handball could transition into a profound dialogue about topics like the refugee crisis. Perspectives from Sweden, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Egypt, the Netherlands, and the United States would each be presented in these conversations, which were always civil and sometimes light-hearted. Hearing these different viewpoints gave me a more nuanced understanding of how the U.S. is perceived by different people and gave me the chance to represent the United States to these people in a personal way. While the technical aspects of the International Handball Goalkeeper Camp were immeasurably valuable, the opportunity to make friends from all over the world is what I cherish  about time in Croatia.

Hope College has provided me with both the support and education that allows me to get the most out of my experiences playing handball abroad. In the athletic department, I have found tremendous support as both a varsity lacrosse player and an aspiring handball player. Hope’s Head Lacrosse Coach Michael Schanhals has been particularly supportive of me both as an athlete and person. At great cost to the lacrosse team, he allowed me to travel to Paraguay during spring break (when our lacrosse team was in-season) so that I could compete for Team USA in the Pan-American Championships. He has also been one of my biggest advocates and biggest role models.

My unusual hobby has been a unique educational tool. Thanks to my education at Hope College, I am better able to reflect on world-wise experiences because of a world-wide sport.

Other coaches, like Becky Schmidt, Chad Carlson, and Melinda Larson, have been incredible mentors and have helped anchor me as both an athlete and a Christian. Academically, I have been blessed with very patient and helpful advisors in both the History and Economics Departments. Professors Marc Baer and Gloria Tseng have helped me improve as a historian and have fostered my love of history and writing. Professors Todd Steen and Stacy Jackson of the Economics Department have also been extremely accommodating and supportive of me, which I have always appreciated considering that I’m not the most talented economics student in the department. However, with their help, I have been able to refine my knowledge of economics so that I can view the world through an added lense.  Finally, I’ve had a tremendous amount of support from my fellow members of the Fraternal Society.

My unusual hobby has been a unique educational tool. Thanks to my education at Hope College, I am better able to reflect on world-wise experiences because of a world-wide sport.

Faith and Sports in Action in India and Japan

 

It’s safe to say the kids and I had a fun time at camp in Udalguri!

This summer I had the great opportunity to travel to both India and Japan, with the support of the Hope College’s athletic and kinesiology departments, to not only share my faith in Jesus Christ but also be immersed in new cultures through sports. In Udalguri, India, I helped run a sports camp for children. In Tokyo, I taught soccer. In each place, my fellow Hope College travelers and I were fortunate to meet a multitude of kind-hearted people with eye-opening and educational worldviews.

In each place, my fellow Hope College travelers and I were fortunate to meet a multitude of kind-hearted people with eye-opening and educational worldviews.

Pastor Samuel and me

In India, we worked alongside Pastor Samuel, who travels around the state of Assam preaching at various Christian churches and making in-home visits to their members. Throughout our time in Udalguri with the Boro people, he showed me what true passion for serving the Lord and seeking first His kingdom looks like. Pastor Samuel prayed with so much passion and energy. It was clear that he truly loved the Lord. Another aspect of Pastor Samuel that I admire is his desire to build up leaders from the community to serve others as the hands and feet of God. We met two of the many men and women whom he is mentoring as leaders across northern India. Bichan and Monoroma travelled with Pastor Samuel to be a part of his Gospel-spreading work in Udalguri that week. Because both of them speak English well, they struggle with deciding whether they should move to a big city to get a good paying job with a telemarketer company or staying in northern India with Pastor Samuel to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

Together at the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan

In Japan, we toured Tokyo for two weeks as well as helped out at a local soccer camp run by Inter Milan and Technos College. This trip gave us the opportunity to see various temples and shrines, which are still culturally significant throughout Japan. Shun, a student from Technos, provided us a good deal of insight into the history and meaning behind everything we saw. His grandfather is the priest at the temple in his hometown. Buddhist traditions have been a part of his family’s life for generations.

The kindness of a complete stranger is something we can all learn from and strive to improve in our own everyday lives here in the America.

Everyone we met or encountered in Tokyo was extremely kind to us. Whether we were asking for directions, joking loudly on the trains, or taking random selfies with people by the Shibuya Crossing (the busiest crosswalk in the world), the Japanese people offered authentic hospitality constantly. So many people were willing to walk two miles with us even if we only needed him or her to walk one. The kindness of a complete stranger is something we can all learn from and strive to improve in our own everyday lives here in the America.

I bring these lessons back with me to Hope thankful that I was able to experience God in new ways this summer. I am majoring in social work and would like to find a job overseas after I graduate. These trips have reaffirmed my desire to work with a faith-based organization in another country in the future. I thank Hope College for these two unforgettable trips that allowed me to experience new cultures, see places I never imagined I would see, meet kind people I’m glad I met, and to become a more global citizen in the process.

More to Sweden than Ikea

 

Swedish ponies like selfies too!

Looking for the best summer of your life? Look no further, because Hope College Geology summer research is where you will find it. Ponies, Swedish farmers, ROCKS. What could be better? But before I get too far ahead of my story, let me explain.

Outcrop jackpot!

I am a geology major at Hope and also a member of the women’s soccer team (FIRE UP DUTCH!).  This summer, I was given the privileged opportunity to travel to Sweden to conduct research with Dr. Edward Hansen, professor of geological and environmental sciences and department chair, and fellow geology student, Max Huffman. This experience was unforgettable and formative too.

We traipsed through pebble and shrub-filled fields and many dense forests in search of square-meter-sized boulders. Often, we only found moss and lichen-covered hillsides. But that’s what makes being a geology researcher fun; each day is a chance for a new discovery.

In Sweden, we were investigating a particular type of rock that once made up a large mountain range formed during a tectonic event, the Sveconorwegian orogen that occurred roughly 1.14-0.9 billion years ago. During this event, tremendous amounts of pressure made portions of the rock melt. Our goal in Sweden was to find outcroppings of these rocks (now very eroded) to observe the portions we hypothesize were part of this melt.  So, a very large portion of our time was spent doing reconnaissance work, locating these outcroppings wherever they were scattered. This fieldwork was extraordinary but also very challenging. We traipsed through pebble and shrub-filled fields and many dense forests in search of square-meter-sized boulders. Often, we only found moss and lichen-covered hillsides. But that’s what makes being a geology researcher fun; each day is a chance for a new discovery. And on one of the best days, we discovered friendship with a farmer and his wife in their home.

On this particular day, we needed to use a rock drill to sample a low-lying outcrop in a farmer’s pasture. The day before, our Swedish colleague called ahead to make sure the owner was willing to let us sample (and cause quite a bit of noise pollution). With approval, the next day we started drilling. A couple hours into the drilling process, the farmer’s neighbor came over to ask us about our project. He spoke English very well and wanted to tell his non-English-speaking neighbor (the farm owner) a little bit about the geology we were investigating. After briefing him on our project and showing him how to use the rock drill, the farmer invited us to come into his house for “fica” (the Swedish version of teatime). Five energetic farm dogs and his wife — who had prepared coffee, tea, and pastries — greeted us at the door. She even had fresh milk from the cows who had been watching us drill.

It’s amazing that the experiences you never expect to have and the people you never expect to meet are the memories you know you’ll never forget.

For about an hour, we sat with the farmer and his family, and his neighbors’ family too, in their home, learning a few Swedish words and talking about geology, dogs, movies, and horse racing (the farmer’s daughter was a professional horse trainer). It turned out to be the best day of field work, ever. It’s amazing that the experiences you never expect to have and the people you never expect to meet are the memories you know you’ll never forget. Plus, I returned to the United States with a new favorite Swedish tradition – fica, a time of restful communion.

Rocks rock wherever you find them.

These highly educational experiences are not rare at Hope. The geology program here focuses heavily on hands-on learning so we often take trips afield. In my three years as a geology major, I have traveled to the Upper Peninsula, Colorado, northern Kentucky, the Smokies, Arizona, and California to study various terrains and rock types. But being abroad this summer was most amazing of all, affording me an opportunity that most undergraduate geology students don’t usually get. Each opportunity gave me invaluable lessons and memories about something I love: the Earth.

I’m not limited to one passion at Hope. I play soccer — a game I’ve loved since I was little — at a high level here, and I learn at a high level  here too.

So, what does all of this have to do with soccer at Hope? If there is one favorite thing I’ve learned through all of my Hope experiences, it is this: I’m not limited to one passion. I play soccer — a game I’ve loved since I was little — at a high level here, and I learn at a high level too. And, I am just one of many student-athletes who have been able to pursue their academic goals with gumption and not be limited by the demands of their sport. I have met so many other student-athletes who have been able to travel abroad for class work and/or research. In fact, my coach, Leigh Sears, wants us to take part academic  adventures like these as much as possible and encourages our team to do so.

Every place I’ve traveled to as a geology student and every game I’ve played as a soccer athlete has vividly shown me that Hope College and the Hope women’s soccer program are designed to create future leaders of tomorrow, not just talented students and soccer players of today. That’s a combination that’s made my Hope experience rock solid!

 

The Making of Fields of Dreams

Over the course of two days this week, Hope College will host eight (maybe nine) softball and baseball games at Wolters and Boeve Stadiums. It makes for a lot of excitement for Hope players and fans, but it also makes a lot of work for the Hope grounds crew, those behind-the-scenes diamond denizens who maintain, prepare, and redo infields and outfields over and over to make them just right for all who play.

But they aren’t complaining. In fact, groundskeeper Jim Speelman and his crew get a kick out of creating well-maintained and meticulously-groomed fields of green.

While most of us simply show up at ball diamonds expecting the grass and dirt and white lines to look just so, rarely stopping to think about how they get that way, Speelman does stop and think about it. Everyday. Especially this Thursday and Friday when Hope hosts the two-day MIAA Softball Tournament and the final baseball doubleheader.

The Flying Dutch softball team opens tournament play against Trine University on Thursday at 1:00 pm while the Flying Dutchmen baseball team will close their home season at 2:00 pm versus Adrian College on Friday.

A 20-year veteran of the Hope grounds department who owned a lawn care business prior to arriving on campus, Speelman, who is now the president of the President of Michigan Sports Turf Manager Association (MSTMA), admits he never maintained or marked a ball field before coming to Hope. Last week, though, he conducted his third clinic for MSTHA’s members on infield maintenance. It gives him an opportunity to share his field wisdom as well as give back to the organization that taught him so much. It’s also a chance to showcase Hope’s two first-rate ball fields.

At the clinic, Speelman discussed “brooming,” “dragging,” repairing, and irrigating. He talked about repair for profound wear around all bases and the pitcher’s mound. He enlightened on dirt texture and workability.

And the man who knows each field’s topography like the proverbial back of his hand — Where the field dips a bit and hold more water? Where fielders trample down grass and dirt and leave pesky ruts? Where the drain lines are exactly? — imparted his philosophy on field upkeep and presentation recently, too.

“We want to give Hope players that ‘wow’ factor’ every time they come to the field,” says Speelman who is joined by Josh Alleman and his father Bob Speelman working on Hope’s athletic fields. “There is something about setting a field up and getting it to look nice, even if it’s going to be destroyed in two hours… if that. I like to watch the players come out and see that they are the ones putting the first footprints on the field because everything has just been dragged and swept. I like hearing them say, ‘Wow, this place looks sweet.’”

As added touches, Speelman makes handmade stencils so he can paint Hope logos or uniform numbers for Senior Recognition Days on the field.  Additionally, he and his crew only have 20 minutes between doubleheader or tournament games to repack the pitcher’s foot plant area on the mound, fill in base paths or home plate holes, re-chalk batter-box lines, and re-drag the infield, but they want “the second game to start out as close to the same field conditions as when the first game started,” he says.

Though unruly, complicated, non-spring-like weather adds layers to their work wardrobe and extra time to their workday, the grounds crew is still happy to provide a service they know makes a difference. They’ll gladly start their diamond day well before to the first pitch and remain well into the last game. Besides, it would be hard imagining any one of these guys sitting behind an indoor desk. The outdoors is where they feel called to be.

“We want to create an experience, and we’re doing it for a good purpose,” explains Alleman. “It’s like any job in life. You have a gratitude of a certain moment, but there’s always an expiration date for that moment’s work. Our work expires a bit faster than others maybe, but we don’t mind. We’ll be back the next game to make (the field) look great again.”