Add in the high stakes nature of postseason play, and you have a recipe for a fervorous and electrifying atmosphere, as a pair of local volleyball teams prepare to take on their respective regional tournaments today.
Both the Grand Haven and Spring Lake volleyball squads will take on conference opponents in their regional semifinal matches, bringing their season series to a third and decisive round. Conference and overall records can be thrown out at this stage of the season, as the only thing that matters now is how these teams will adjust since their previous meetings.
CLASHING WITH CALEDONIA
The Grand Haven Buccaneers will prepare to take on the Caledonia Fighting Scots for the third time this season, as they host the Division 1 regional tournament today. The winner of today's 5 p.m. semifinal match will play the winner of Rockford and Hudsonville (7 p.m.) for the regional championship on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.
In their first meeting this season on Sept. 27, Caledonia defeated Grand Haven in straight sets (25-21, 25-22, 25-21). The Bucs forced a fifth set against the Scots when they met again Oct. 25, but couldn't find the final plays late in a 15-13 loss to decide the match.
"The first time we played them was the point of the season when we started to look into some things we were doing and changed some things about our lineup and rotations," reflected Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. "We have changed the lineups a few times since then, but we still feel like a completely different team now than we were the two times we went up against them."
Like Grand Haven, Caledonia hasn't dropped a set so far this postseason. The Scots dispatched Ottawa Hills in their opener, followed by a straight-set win over East Grand Rapids and sweep of Wyoming in the finals to clinch the district title.
"They are very good at getting you out of system with some difficult serves," said Smaka of the Scots. "Against East Grand Rapids, they really served tough and forced EGR into a lot of hitting errors. That's when they are at their best, and that's why it's so important that we take care of the ball against them."
Caledonia is led by senior outside hitters Emily Petrosky and Evie Larson on the attack, while sophomore Lydia Harper is the team's defensive stalwart, often leading the team in digs and assists.
"Lydia is the one that makes their whole attack work," said Smaka. "They have talented outside hitters and some great athletes throughout their lineup that we have to keep our eyes on, but she's the one that digs up shots and gets the ball where it needs to be. Her older sister plays at Miami University (Ohio), and she's already making a name for herself on the varsity level as a sophomore in high school."
The Bucs hope to enjoy a lively home court advantage today, as they host the regionals for the first time since 2012, when Grand Haven went on a run to the state semifinals.
"2012 was a fun time for us and the community really got behind us," said Smaka. "We know we have to play good volleyball in order to advance to Thursday's finals, but playing in front of our home crowd will be a big boost for our kids.
"I think they are excited about the opportunity to play in front of their peers and have the whole gym cheering them on. That kind of atmosphere can really help momentum swings and have everyone playing at a higher level when we string together a scoring run."
In order to create those scoring runs, however, the Bucs will need to take care of the ball.
"We haven't taken care of the ball very well against them," Smaka added. "We've made a lot of mistakes and our team feels like we are playing much better than the two times we played them before.
"Taking care of the ball seems like a simple thing, but there's really three different aspects to it. That means you are doing well on serve-receive, passing well and hitting the ball accurately. If we can do those three things (today), then we know we have a chance to advance."
The improving play of the entire rotation gives Smaka and his staff a confidence boost that the Bucs will put together their best performance to date when they take the court at 5 p.m.
"We knew we would have depth this season, but kids like Mackenzie Gross, Olivia McMullen and Sarah Knoll have really elevated their game lately," he added. "Ashlyn Hall has done a really nice job of passing the ball on the attack and giving kids like Ashley Slater and Avolyn Lepo a chance to be big difference makers at the net.
"Baby Hang has done a nice job on defense and Reilly has been serving really tough lately, too. We feel like we are starting to put it all together at the right time and that's exciting for us."
FIGHTING THE FALCONS
The Spring Lake volleyball squad will travel to Grand Rapids Christian High School for their third match of the season with the West Catholic Falcons. In the first meeting of the season, Spring Lake defeated West Catholic on the road in straight sets (25-16, 25-21 and 25-17). The Falcons returned the favor in the rematch, however, taking the second match at Spring Lake in straight sets (25-20, 25-15, 25-22).
"They switched up their lineup a little bit after that first match with us and really changed up their attack," said Spring Lake head coach Cassidy Hazekamp of the Falcons. "They blocked really well the second time they played us, they kept the ball in system much more and they ran their hitters well, too.
"The first time we played them at their place, we really dictated the tempo and forced the issue on them and kept them out of system. Then, they responded by coming into our place and really keeping us on our heels and out of system.
"Whichever team can stay in system usually has the upper hand."
The Falcons advanced to the regional tournament by grinding out some difficult wins over Forest Hills Eastern (3-1) and Grand Rapids Catholic Central (3-1), so the team will have plenty of confidence heading into today's matchup with the Lakers.
West Catholic relies on middle hitters Ciera Rodney, Allyson Milligan and Crysta Daetwiler in front of the net, while Madison DeYoung and Dana Wila are two of the team's best outside hitters.
Sophomore Aishlin Roth is the team's setter, helping set the table for the team's unique attack.
"They've got a lot of talented outside hitters, and they do a nice job of changing up where they are going to hit the ball from," Hazekamp said of the Falcons. "They've got a lot of experience in their lineup, they serve well and they try and get you scrambling on your end. I think we are in a much better position now to play against that style than we were back in September, but we have to come ready to play in order to beat a quality team like West Catholic."
A two-week lull in action between the end of the regular season and the playoffs has helped the Lakers fine-tune their games and do a deep dive into self and team improvement.
"I think we have improved tremendously," said Hazekamp. "These last two weeks have helped a lot. We are finally playing at our peak and I think that two-week stretch is a big reason why. We were able to watch a lot of film, do skill-centric drills and scrimmage each other to get some live action in.
"During the regular season, we were playing every Tuesday and Thursday, so we didn't have a lot of opportunity to work on ourselves. The coaches were a little worried about having that much time off right before the district tournament, but the kids responded well and came out fired up for that first Montague match. Then, that momentum carried over to the Whitehall match and we're hoping we can keep that rolling into the regionals."
A big reason for the recent success of the Lakers has been the improving play of junior Abbi Perkins and senior Julia Clover.
"Abbi Perkins has had a great year," said Hazekamp. "Jenna (Core) was always our leader in kills for most of the season, but Abbi has really stepped up and created some balance in our lineup. In the district finals, she and Jenna both had 14 kills. When teams have to account for two people instead of just one, it makes us that much more difficult to prepare for.
"Julia is someone who has played so well that she's forced the coaching staff to play her the entire match, instead of just in spurts. She's done an excellent job in the back row and she was serving well in the last few matches. Taylor Colquitt and Jencen Sabo have been solid contributors all season, as well, and Madeline Zenas has done a little bit of everything for us at setter.
"Sophomore Alicia Mumby has added another dimension to our defense with her play in the middle, and she led us in blocks in our two district matches. We're finally finding a level of consistency that we haven't had for stretches of the regular season and we feel like we are peaking at the right time."