The Bucs put together a perfect run through their district, clinching their 12th-straight title and 16th in 17 seasons with a 3-0 win over Reeths-Puffer on Thursday night, earning a chance to return home to host the regional tournament.
Head coach Aaron Smaka preaches saving your best for November, and as of the first of the month, Grand Haven is back on their game.
“It feels awesome,” said junior outside hitter Ashley Slater. “We obviously were in a bit of a rut, but we are putting it all together now. We just found that fire — that will to win. We were on fire through the whole tournament. The energy never dropped, we never gave up any long runs. We just wanted it.”
The Bucs had a tough end to their regular season, dropping to fifth in the O-K Red Conference standings through the final few weeks of play. Heading into the postseason, they had lost their identity.
“We knew we could do it, we knew we had to turn things around,” Smaka said. “I think we were just really focused on our jobs this week.
“We didn’t allow any big runs. We talked about taking care of first and final contact and we made very few errors in those areas and we served the ball well. I think we just are really focused now and are peaking at the right time like we always talk about.”
Thursday’s win capped the run in front of a raucous atmosphere at Reeths-Puffer, as the Rockets tried to play spoiler on their home floor. The result was a dominant effort by Grand Haven, as they took all three sets by a score of 25-17.
To get to 17 points in each game against a red-hot Bucs team is an accomplishment. In the face of a booming attack by Slater, Mackenzie Gross, Sarah Knoll and Avolyn Lepo, Reeths-Puffer held strong, absorbing hard kills with deft digs and sending them back with a strong attack of their own. True to form, Grand Haven struggled when they elected to tip the ball, leaving an exposed middle.
“Reeths-Puffer deserves a lot of credit,” Smaka said. “They really played hard tonight.
“They have three kids that are hitting the ball really well, and our block wasn’t especially good early in the match. They did a really good job running a high middle on us. We did not defend that well. Kenowa Hills did the same thing, so we will be working on that.”
In spite of the talent on the far side of the net, Grand Haven held strong, putting on a refreshing defensive effort.
“I thought our defense was the best I’ve seen in a while,” Smaka said. “That’s something that hasn’t always been great for us.”
Strong defense gives way to clean offense. Slater and Gross led the Bucs with 14 of their kills each, while the team totaled 50 over a short three sets, reflecting a well-oiled attack finally firing on all cylinders.
“The offense ran well tonight,” Smaka said. “We mixed things up, ran our pins in different places and stayed unpredictable.
“We’ve always known we have the athletes to terminate the ball, we just have had serious trouble getting the ball to them and passing well enough to make that attack effective. We saw it all come together tonight. Hopefully, that serves as momentum.
“We had 50 kills in three sets, so that is doing a good job terminating the ball, and we had a great balance between our four hitters.”
Lepo followed Slater and Gross with eight kills, while Knoll totaled seven. Ashlyn Hall fed the killers, racking up 45 assists to lead the team by a mile.
Slater chipped in on defense as well, leading the team with 13 digs, just ahead of Baby Hang and Reilly Sweibert with 12 apiece.
The sweeping district tournament victory put the Bucs back on track. Now, they look forward to hosting the regional tournament for the first time since 2012, coincidentally the last state title for the program.
“I love the fact that we had a loud student section tonight. That makes this time of year all the more fun,” Smaka said. “I’m really looking forward to Tuesday and being at home. I know it is going to be great energy.
“The last time we hosted district was 2012, and that was a special year for us. It is going to be a heck of a regional, it always is. We have known that is where our real challenge will be.”
The regional tournament kicks off with the semifinals Tuesday. The Bucs will face the winner of the Caledonia vs. Wyoming district final matchup at 5 p.m. On the other side, Rockford will face the winner of Hudsonville vs. Jenison.