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The Hope-Calvin rivalry, rooted in a 150-year-old church division, keeps western Michigan talking

The Calvin-Hope matchup is a big game in western Michigan across all sports, but especially basketball. This year, the men will meet up for the 200th time, with Hope leading the series 103-95 going into the season. In women’s basketball, Calvin has outpaced Hope 71-50. Rob Kurtycz photo

Hope and Calvin colleges are conference opponents located just 30 miles from each other in western Michigan, so their long-standing rivalry is no surprise.

Yet there’s something more to this faceoff. It goes back — way back — to the middle of the 19th century, when a group of Dutch immigrants separated from their church to form another. The Reformed Church in America is affiliated with Hope in Holland, Michigan; the new Christian Reformed Church in North America with Calvin in nearby Grand Rapids.

The split was over such theological questions as whether hymns — as opposed to simply psalms — should be incorporated into worship. But today’s Hope-Calvin rivalry, which splits households and workplaces in the region, is more about bragging rights. ESPN once ranked it fourth on its list of the nation’s greatest college basketball rivalries.

“I don’t really get asked what your record was,” says Kevin Vande Streek, the Calvin men’s basketball coach. “I get asked, ‘How’d you do against Hope?’”

The rivalry manifests itself at watch parties across the country, which Hope and Calvin alumni host when their teams meet. But for the coaches, the real pressure comes from the community and the fans sitting in the stands.

Hope women’s basketball coach Brian Morehouse always feels the weight of the rivalry game and dreads the days following a loss. “That follows you around,” he says. “There are dark days when you lose afterward. But that’s why you love it — you love the pressure that comes with it.”

Beyond the historical roots and exuberant fan bases, the coaches say this rivalry is about the deep mutual respect the two schools have for each other on and off the court.

“As much as we want to beat each other, we’re going to sit next to each other at events, we’re going to have lunch together,” Vande Streek says. “Guys play three-on-three together in the summer, they have stood up in each other’s weddings, they’ve been high school teammates, and they’ve been in Sunday school together growing up. It’s very spirited.”

While the clock is running and the fans are cheering, there is an unmistakable fierceness in the air.

Greg Mitchell, the Hope men’s basketball coach, is a former standout player for the team who, to this day, holds the Flying Dutchmen record for career 3-point shooting at 46.4 percent. But his records aren’t what Mitchell remembers most from his days facing off against Calvin. “I remember the enthusiasm — it was always the decider of who won the conference.”

While the basketball rivalry captured ESPN’s attention, Hope-Calvin transcends one particular sport — “whether it’s volleyball or men’s soccer or women’s soccer,” Morehouse says.

And though this rivalry began with a difference of opinion, Hope and Calvin today share similar missions.

“I think you go into coaching because you love the game, you love to compete, and you love the relationships,” says Vande Streek, reflecting on his 22 seasons at Calvin. “I think those things are still true. As I’ve gotten older, the relationships have become the most important thing. Whether that’s relationships with other coaches or the mentoring of the young men in my charge — I take that very seriously.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.