The Buccaneers heavy hitters set the tone in the opening set, while some hitting errors in the second and third sets kept the competition close. However, Grand Haven's experience and talent helped push the team to victory and onto the district championship match.
"Anytime you're potentially closing out a team (for the season), they are going to give you a little bit more than maybe you expect," said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. "We made a lot of hitting errors in the second set, and they also started tipping on us a lot, too. We didn't handle the tip plays very well. We've been working on having better anticipation on those types of plays, but we didn't handle it very well in spots tonight.
"In the last set, we just got quiet. We didn't talk to each other much and the energy wasn't quite the same. We talked after the match about how we are going to get everyone's best shot when you're up 2-0 on someone. They know that they are playing for their season, so they are going to bring it and we have to match that intensity."
Playing a team that doesn't play at the same speed as you can often feel like trying to hit a home run off a knuckleball pitcher. That was a problem the Buccanneers faced Wednesday and had to adjust as the match went on.
"Part of the problem for us was the pace and the tempo," added Smaka. "We are used to playing in the O-K Red Conference where the play is a little bit different. The athletes are little bigger and stronger and the ball is coming at you a little faster.
"Sometimes it's harder to play a style of game that you're not used to than to play against a team you've seen and know what to expect. You have to give Kenowa Hills credit for coming in and changing the tempo of the match and doing enough things well to throw us off.”
Grand Haven flexed its collective muscles in the opening set, jumping out to a 12-6 lead thanks to some thunderous kills by Ashley Slater and Avolyn Lepo. The early surge forced Kenowa Hills to call a timeout and regroup after being spooked by the prowess of the Bucs.
The extra time didn't change the outcome, as Grand Haven closed out the set on a 13-4 run to score an emphatic 25-10 win to open the match.
Set 2 opened up with a quick 5-4 lead by Kenowa Hills, as some hitting errors and miscommunication put the team in an early hole. Grand Haven would take the lead at 10-9, but the Knights wouldn't go away quietly. The underdogs found some points off of strong play at the net and a few solid serves to stick with Grand Haven at 15-14.
The experience and talent for the Bucs eventually took over, however, as Grand Haven finished the set on a 10-7 run to close out a 25-21 win.
Set 3 would be another back-and-forth affair, as the Bucs displayed flashes of brilliance at times, but also battled with some inconsistencies. Every Grand Haven run was seemingly answered with a Kenowa Hills rebuttal, as the two squads tied at 5-5, 7-7, 10-10 and 16-16.
Grand Haven found a sliver of separation at 18-16 thanks to back-to-back kills by Slater. The momentum-shifting plays prompted a Kenowa Hills timeout. The Bucs buckled down after the stoppage, running the Knights off the court with a 7-3 run to clinch the sweep with a 25-19 win.
Slater recorded 17 kills to lead the Bucs attack, while Lepo added 11 and Sarah Knoll and Mackenzie Gross each added six.
Ashlyn Hall ran the offense with an efficient 41 assists, while Knoll sparked some key runs for the team with four service aces. Baby Hang led the defense with nine digs, while Reilly Swierbut added seven and Hall and Slater each chipped in with five.
"I thought Ashley and Avolyn were great today," Smaka continued. "Ashley was just dominant at the net at times and Avolyn did a nice job of challenging shots. Ashlyn did a nice job of setting the tempo of the offense and getting the ball where it needed to be. We just have to recognize scenarios better as a team sometimes.
"When we are in a position where the other team is attacking and we are in transition, we need to get the ball up higher to give our other hitters a chance to recover. We are doing a better job on that, but we still have a lot of room for improvement."
As the team turns its attention to a possible regional tournament run, Smaka was pleased with the attitude and work ethic that his squad has displayed up to this point.
"The chemistry of this team has been amazing," he said. "They've been an absolute pleasure to coach and they've been very receptive to making changes. Sometimes those changes don't always get executed as well as we'd like, but they are always willing to move things around if it makes the team better.
"A lot of that is due to the six seniors we have on our roster. They've been very committed to the program and helped establish a culture of how we want to act and treat each other. That's made the practice environment more fun and energetic and create a real strong sense of team, even if we don't win a match."
Grand Haven will play Reeths-Puffer tonight in the Division 1 district championship match at Reeths-Puffer High School at 7 p.m.
The Buccaneers hope to capture their 12th straight district title and 16th out of their last 17th with a win. If the squad advances past the district round, they'll host the regional tournament Nov. 6 and 8.
"We saw them play Tuesday night, and we played them once in a tournament earlier this year, so we have a good feel for what they bring to the table," said Smaka of the Rockets. "Alex (Rykse) has really done a nice job of turning that program around this year. I'm sure they'll be ready to play and they'll show plenty of fight."