Lydiah Baker, Tylee Knieper, Alex Bergman and Crimson Draeger have led their team as developmental gurus, emotional anchors and skilled players for four years, and enjoyed a little recognition from their teammates, parents and coaches Thursday, as the Bucs hosted Hudsonville.
“We are going to miss these girls a lot,” said Grand Haven head coach Kaci Wiebenga. “They have been the backbone of this team last year as well as this year. They come to the pool ready to work and are here for the right reasons and do the little things right. They work well together and we were lucky to have them.”
The girls polo program at Grand Haven has been under a rebuilding phase in recent years, trudging through coaching changes and a regional tournament drought. Win, lose or draw, it’s all the same for this group of seniors, who recognize that the impact of sports comes from much more than titles.
“Through all the coaching changes and stuff, we have stayed a solid team,” Baker said. “We had a few people leave, but mostly we all stayed together. A lot of things are hard, but we learned it pays off if you work hard.
“We learned to lose with dignity and not freak out during tough games,” Baker added. “We always have focused on the small things, and that has gotten us this far.”
With program identity hard to pin down, the Class of 2019 took it upon themselves to mentor the younger players, trying to instill their sense of duty and meticulous approach to improvement into the DNA of the program.
“They have been so good to this group of freshman girls,” Wiebenga said. “They are always pulling them aside for tips and coaching, telling them where to be and when and what to do. This freshmen group was lucky to have them.”
Thursday’s game against the powerhouse Eagles showcased their mentoring prowess, as the Bucs got off to a great defensive start against the two-time defending state champs, taking a 3-2 deficit into the first break.
Grand Haven’s goalie started the game off with a spectacular save in the cage, denying the Eagles on an early 5-meter penalty shot. Hudsonville came back to net the first two goals, threatening to pull away for a rout, before Knieper collected a pass from Ellyn Skodack in transition, burning a shot past the Eagle keeper at point blank range.
Another Eagle goal in transition pushed the lead back to two midway through the opening quarter. From there, Grand Haven’s defense denied the Eagles’ dominant hole set player any chance to operate.
Baker ended the quarter with a stunning shot, sinking a goal from mid-pool as the buzzer sounded to cut the lead to one goal.
“They went into this game ready for the challenge, saying, ‘Its senior night, and we’re playing Hudsonville, what do you expect?’ Wiebenga said. “They went in giddy and happy to play, and when we are like that we play well together.”
Hudsonville found their rhythm in the second quarter, adapting to the Bucs’ well-executed drop defense, to score seven goals and take a 10-3 lead into halftime. Baker scored the Bucs’ final goal, burying another long-range shot, this time on a common foul call.
The Bucs couldn’t find the net in the second half, while the Eagles offense slowed down, bringing the game to its final tally, 13-3.
“You could see all the little things we do in practice were paying off and they were excited about that,” Wiebenga said after the game. “We even had a few scenarios where three girls were involved in a switch on defense and everyone came out on the right people. We can get excited about that.”
With senior night taken care of, the Bucs have just one final hurdle to clear before their four years of service is up — the district tournament. This class of Bucs has never made it into the regional round, but could be capable thanks to the hard work of their senior class.
“Districts is going to be interesting,” Weibenga said. “Not many teams can go 3-2 with Hudsonville through a quarter. We always tend to start games really well. If we can put together a full game of playing like that, we will make things interesting.”
The District Tournament runs May 10-11 at Hudsonville High School, with the top four finishers out of six teams earn a bid to the regional round.