The Grand Haven water polo team was tested in all these ways over the weekend as they fought for a fourth-place finish at the Michigan Water Polo Association State Championship Tournament.
The Bucs got it done when it counted, as they upset East region runner-up Dexter in their quarterfinal game, securing a spot in the top four for the first time in recent memory.
After three straight years of dropping that Friday night game and being relegated to the bottom four, the win to kick off the tournament was a tremendous start to a weekend of water polo.
“After finishing fifth, sixth and fifth in the last three years, winning that first game, it makes you want to continue the exertion,” said Grand Haven head coach Bill Hamm. “It takes a lot of energy to try and help these boys all year long. A lot of endurance to make it through 36-hour tournaments, it gets you down every now and again. But they had some fun Friday and that makes you want to stick around.”
The boys couldn’t keep the magic going Saturday, though, falling to top-ranked and eventual runner-up Hudsonville in the semifinals and to perennial champion Rockford in the third-place game. It was a bitter ending to a stellar season, threatening to dampen the accomplishments of a special team. Luckily, the Bucs gained some perspective along the way.
“It was an awesome feeling to beat Dexter,” senior captain Jackson Hamm said. “It’s the first time in my career that we have won that first game, so that is pretty cool. It stinks we couldn’t finish it off, though. Those last two games were tough.”
“I wish those last two games could have gone differently,” senior captain Ethan Ball said. “But you realize it is about the relationships. That is what you will remember in 20 years, how much fun you had with your buddies along the way.”
“It felt amazing,” said junior standout Nick Wilson. “We’ve never been this far up. It was a real spirit booster to prove that we can do this and we belong up there with the big boys after all our hard work. This was a real team this year, and we’ve gotten so much better throughout the season.”
Considering the hand dealt to the Bucs in August when they met for camp, finishing as the most successful team in history didn’t seem to be in the cards. A team ravaged by the graduation of a pair of All-State polo players and swimmers, a starting goalie, a go-to holeset and even quality bench players didn’t know what to expect.
“It was a team that lost all of its leaders,” coach Hamm said. “We lost the emotional leaders, we lost experience, and we had no respect from the water polo community. We weren’t even in the top 10 rankings. Nobody figured we would be back. They saw everybody that left and said, ‘Who are they going to be?’
“But, that’s why you play a long season.”
Over the course of that long season, from Aug. 8 to Saturday evening, the Bucs learned their own brand of water polo – one built on teamwork and the cooperation of a group of players with a wide range of skills.
“We didn’t have a dominant player that came in and was taking over every game,” said senior captain Matt Marcus. “Everybody had to be part of the team, it really went down to nine or 10 people that could all get in the pool and play at a very high level this year.”
That identity wasn’t formed overnight, though. It took a rough beginning and some extended experimentation.
“In our first tournament, because of the way I coached, I made sure we everybody got to play, a lot,” Hamm said. “We lost all four games.
“In August, when I was looking at us, I was hoping to make the bottom four at state again. My secret goal was to just make the state tournament. Early on, we realized we had probably one kid that could start on anyone’s team, and we had to find 11 or 12 that would make us a team, and we did. We played as a group all the time. Nobody on our team said they were going to own it from the beginning, it was a team effort, always.”
As more and more boys got involved in the pool, a deep comradery floated to the surface. After a rough start to the season, the wins started to pile up.
“We had lots of leaders emerge,” coach Hamm said. “Ethan Ball knew he was going to be a leader, and he had the skills to do it in the pool. He took that mantle and handled it, and we had other guys really step up and play in the pool. Thomas MacDonald, Nick Wilson, Mark Wilgenburg, our keeper Mark Nordin, who hadn’t played much at all coming in and by the end of the season had played almost every minute all year.
“We had a good group of captains, some of which didn’t play much at all, but they led in practice extremely effectively. It was a lot of fun to watch the boys change over the season.”
By the time the district tournament rolled around, the Bucs had found their identity.
Their regular-season play earned them a No. 2 seed for the district tournament, where a 12-6 loss to Hudsonville in the finals earned them a matching finish.
At the regional, a 7-3 win over East Grand Rapids earned Grand Haven a date with Rockford in the semifinals, where they fell 11-9 to reach the third-place game, defeating Zeeland 11-8 to pick up a three-seed heading into the state finals.
“By the time the postseason got here, I knew we could play well enough to break into the top four,” coach Hamm said. “I think we improved more than anyone in the west. When we finished up at regionals, I was thinking we deserved to be here in the top four.”
At the finals, a perfectly-executed gameplan got them an emotional win Friday, while slow starts against familiar teams made things tough against Hudsonville in the semifinals and Rockford in the third-place matchup.
“We played team offense and team defense against Dexter, and we had moments against Hudsonville and Rockford where it worked,” coach Hamm said. “We got a little stagnant, they didn’t swim as well and took too long to get into our offense.”
The reality of accomplishing and eclipsing their goals seemed to set in Saturday morning, as the team dealt with the emotional load of a season’s worth of development being tested on familiar opponents.
“Everything is expanded,” Ball said. “The highs are super high and the lows are super low. I think that showed toward the end.”
“There was more pressure in that last game than the first two this weekend and a lot more than the last two games of last season,” Jackson said. “Just finally being there is something else.”
After losing their first meeting of the season with Rockford 15-3, finishing the season with a 14-10 loss to their regional rivals is something to behold, but the Bucs’ postgame reflection centered on the journey, not the final minutes of the season.
“I made most of my friends in the pool,” Ball said. “And as much as you want to be remembered for the stuff in the pool, that’s not how it goes. It was a great collection of teammates, that is what I’ll remember.”
“My high school experience has been defined by these guys,” Marcus added. “Without them, it wouldn’t be anything like it is right now. I’m very grateful to have them.”
Now, at the conclusion of a storybook season, the Bucs have to reset all over again as nine players will leave the roster. Nordin, Curtis Colvin, Hamm, Ball, Jake Klahorst, Marcus, Eli VandenBrand, Wilgenburg and Griffin Kelly all move on from the team having left it better than it ever was.
Coach Hamm said after their win over Dexter on Friday the boys remarked that they had seen a few superstar water polo players come through the program, only to finish fifth or worse.
“We must be a team full of superstars, then,” they said.
Their play this throughout this season certainly says so.