The 2019 Grand Haven boys water polo team made their hay in the state tournament, peaking at the perfect time to nab an appearance in the semifinal match. While their season ended with two losses, their fourth-place finish reset the watermark for the program as their best performance to date.
Fifth-place finishes had become commonplace for the Bucs by the end of 2018, when they dropped the opening game of the state tournament to enter the consolation bracket for the third straight year. The still-impressive fifth-place finish featured a pair of All-State players and the program’s all-time leading scorer as part of an 11-man graduating class.
At the outset of the 2018 fall season, no one had much regard for the remaining Grand Haven roster.
“It was a team that lost all of its leaders,” said Grand Haven varsity coach Bill Hamm at the conclusion of the season. “We lost the emotional leaders, we lost experience, we had no respect from the water polo community. We weren’t even in the top-10 rankings. They saw the guys coming back and said, ‘Who are they going to be?’
“But, that’s why you play a long season.”
That long season started rough for the largely fresh team, as they got accustomed to a new style of play. The first few tournaments served as exploratory outings, with Hamm trying out as many combinations and players as he could — largely ignoring the scoreboard.
“I think every season I have coached here we have gone 0-4 through the first tournament,” Hamm said. “As an organization, we take every season as a simple method of learning. We don’t try to win games until the postseason.”
The exploration worked wonders for the 2019 roster, as leaders emerged and an identity grew. As the season progressed, a team-first attitude took hold with no lone individual seizing control.
Individuals stood out, like eventual All-State sophomore Nick Wilson and former All-American swimmer Mark Wilgenburg, and stars emerged — some even reluctantly. As the roster settled into their individual roles, the wins piled up.
“What changed for us was the way they solidified,” Hamm said. “Everyone wanted playing time and everyone earned playing time. Three or four weeks into the season we saw those starters emerge and start playing at a different level.
“We had some dominant forces in Nick Wilson and Mark Wilgenburg. We had some exuberant, supportive gentlemen in the MacDonald brothers. We had some very knowledgeable players who played with poise and a team focus in Jackson Hamm and Eli Vandenbrand, and we had a transformation in our goalkeeper. We had a young man who was not planning to be a star in Mark Nordin who improved every week and won us games with his goal play.”
With roles revealed, it was as easy as getting out of the way for Hamm as the wheels started turning toward a postseason surge.
“When those guys emerged then it’s just a matter of refining the fundamentals and letting them enjoy playing,” Hamm said. “This team was good at that part.
“It’s an odd thing being a coach of a team sport, because you can get in the way. Their success this year meant I didn’t get in the way too much. As a group, this team was one. We let them lead us. We had some great players who wanted to play as a team.”
The Bucs play down the stretch earned them the No. 2 seed in the district tournament and a bye through the first round, before a dominant 11-5 win over West Ottawa set up a loss in the title game to top-ranked Hudsonville.
Moving on to the regional tournament, Grand Haven took down East Grand Rapids in the opening round before seeing notorious Rockford in the semifinals. After losing their first matchup of the season with the Rams by a score of 15-3 on Sept. 10, the Bucs took Rockford to the wire in their regional matchup, losing 11-9.
The progress-marking loss moved the Bucs into the regional third-place game, where they beat rival Zeeland 11-8.
That set up a punch-up game to open the state tournament against the No.5-ranked, No. 2-seeded Dexter Dreadnaughts. The Bucs torpedoed their East-region foes early, taking a 3-2 lead out of the first quarter and building to an 8-4 lead by halftime. A fourth-quarter rally made things interesting, but the Bucs held on in the all-important quarterfinal round.
The Eagles flew into the semifinal hell-bent on a trip to the title game, after holding the regular-season No. 1 ranking all year. They made short work of the Bucs, sending them for another round against Rockford in the third-place game. A hard-fought match ended in a 14-10 Grand Haven loss. The sour ending couldn’t dampen the final result — a best-ever finish for the program.