The Grand Haven and Rockford volleyball programs have had a long-standing history of competing for regional supremacy in the postseason, with both the Buccaneers and the Rams coming away with plenty of hardware between conference, district and regional runs over the years.
The two elite programs met again Thursday for another regional title, with Grand Haven hoping its home-court advantage would be enough to push them over the edge and knock off the powerful Rams in front of packed Grand Haven Fieldhouse.
Both squads showed flashes of brilliance during their match, but the Rams would ultimately make the winning plays late to hold off the Buccaneers in straight sets by scores of 25-23, 25-22 and 25-10.
"We were really excited about the opportunity to play them again," said Grand Haven senior Baby Hang. "As a team, we all had the same mindset. We wanted to win, and we knew we had to stay aggressive from start to finish in order to accomplish that.
"We left it all out there tonight, but we didn't get the result that we wanted."
Both teams found some early success in Set 1, but Rockford found a few scoring runs during critical stretches to take a 13-6 lead. After a Grand Haven timeout, the Buccaneers mounted a comeback, scoring five straight points to bring the score to 13-11 and force a Rockford timeout in response.
The set would continue to go back-and-forth from there, with several ties and lead changes that increased in intensity with each contact of the ball. With the score knotted at 23, Rockford dug deep and scored back-to-back points on powerful kills from the net that gave the Rams a thrilling 25-23 win and a 1-0 lead in the match.
Set 2 would continue to see both squads battle for separation, with Grand Haven taking an early 5-2 lead, only to have Rockford tie the game at 5-5. More ties and lead changes would ensue, with Grand Haven taking a 10-9 lead, followed by a 15-14 Rockford lead. Both teams would eventually draw even again at 21-21, but the Rams once again saved their best for last, ending the set on a 4-1 run to score a 25-22 win.
With a 2-0 lead and all the momentum on their side, Rockford entered Set 3 with a sense of urgency. The Rams let a 2-0 lead slip away Tuesday against Hudsonville and had to fend off the Eagles in five sets to advance to Thursday's regional finals. Against Grand Haven, the Rams took an 11-7 lead and never looked back.
Rockford used tough serves, pinpoint passes and thunderous kills to outscore Grand Haven 14-3, including 10 unanswered points to close out the set, to record a decisive win in Set 3 and a sweep of the Buccaneers to clinch the regional championship.
Junior outside hitter Ashley Slater recorded 11 kills to lead the Buccaneer attack, while sophomore Mackenzie Gross added eight and junior Sarah Knoll added five.
Senior setter Ashlyn Hall ran the offense with 27 assists, while fellow senior Baby Hang led the defense with 13 digs. Seniors Avolyn Lepo and Olivia McMullen, along with Knoll, each had two blocks.
"We really felt like we were right there in those first two sets," said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. "You have to give Rockford credit for closing those two sets out, but I don't think we passed to the best of our abilities tonight. We gave them way too many free balls during that first set and parts of the second set, too. Part of that is their serving and attack, but we still managed to perform pretty well when we were out of system.
"The first two sets were just great volleyball. There was power shot after power shot and it was two good teams battling. I thought we performed well early on, and then that third set just got away from us. Our passing fell apart during the stretch and they made sure to close us out. They weren't going to allow us to do what Hudsonville did Tuesday."
The loss signaled the end of the road for six Grand Haven seniors who have enjoyed plenty of conference and postseason success during their time on the varsity team.
"We talked in the locker room after the match tonight and there was just a lot of love in the room," Smaka said. "Everyone on this team cares about each other. The six seniors on this team deserve a lot of the credit, because they are the ones who really lead the way for us. Ashlyn Hall and Baby Hang are two of their captains, and Olivia McMullen, Rachel Hilburger, Avery Strohmeyer and Avolyn Lepo have been instrumental in turning this thing around for us.
"Those six were a big reason why we were able to make it through that tough stretch in the middle of the season and come out of it stronger in time for the playoffs."
Despite being eliminated by Rockford for the second time in three seasons, Smaka believes the 2018 Grand Haven volleyball squad deserves a lot of credit for stringing together a memorable postseason run.
"We lost to them in five sets in the regional final two years ago, and they lost in the regional finals last year," said Smaka of the Rams. "Our regional is always tough. The team that makes it through more often than not is playing for a state championship.
"I'm proud of our program for making it back to the regional final after how the regular season went for us. They could have folded, but they didn't. The seniors kept the team positive and we worked together to reach our goals. "
Winning their 12th straight district title and improving on last year's postseason achievements were two goals that Hang assigned herself heading into her senior season. She walks away from her high school career with a feeling of accomplishment.
"The improvements we've made since the midway point of the regular season have been amazing," she said. "I think a lot of credit goes to the coaches for sticking with us and knowing what this team is capable of, and then the players had a few long talks about season goals and commitment and we really all came together late in the season. We kind of turned it on in the playoffs and started playing up to our abilities.
"We kept the district title streak alive and making another run to the regional finals. Those were two things that I wanted to accomplish in my final year here."