By Nate Thompson
GRANDVILLE — To make a return trip to Battle Creek and the Class A state semifinals, Grand Haven’s varsity volleyball squad knew they had to elevate their game to another level.
Unfortunately, the Bucs ran into a Grand Rapids Christian squad that took it a notch higher.
In the third meeting of the season between the state-ranked programs, it was the No. 3-ranked Eagles who put an exclamation point in the rubber match, sweeping the No. 5 Bucs in convincing fashion in the regional semifinals at Grandville High School, 25-19, 25-22 and 25-20.
Grand Rapids Christian advances to Thursday’s regional final against Hudsonville, which outlasted O-K Red Conference rival Rockford in a marathon five-set match.
The Eagles took care of business much quicker. They allowed Grand Haven to hold just three leads throughout the entire match — at 1-0 and 5-4 in the second set, and a 1-0 advantage in the third.
“They were really impressive,” Grand Haven coach Aaron Smaka said with a shrug. “Their defense was amazing. And honestly, I thought our girls played well. I was really proud at the way we played and kept fighting.
“It just seemed every long rally seemed to go their way, and you’re thinking, you know, their luck has to run out at some point. But that’s the way it goes.”
Grand Haven had no answer at slowing down Eagles’ senior outside hitter Dylynn Otte, whose powerful and relentless attacks resulted in a match-high 24 kills. Smaka admitted his squad did not block well enough to slow down the Eagles, and with their defense and passing ability, they were able to keep the Bucs’ diggers scrambling.
“They did a better job of controlling first contact,” Smaka said. “And they made us work harder.”
Grand Haven (47-8 overall) showcased its resiliency at the end of the second set. Facing a 22-17 hole, the Bucs clawed back to within a point at 22-21, aided by a pair of kills by senior Emily Lachmann.
Lachmann closed out her prep career in solid fashion, leading the Bucs with 15 kills and added 12 digs.
“Emily was outstanding,” Smaka said. “She definitely went out swinging. There was definitely no lack of heart, desire, passion or energy from her or any of our girls tonight.”
Still, the Eagles always had a dagger in Otte, who closed out the Bucs in the second set with a back row kill, and a perfectly-placed tip near the line to clinch the three-point win.
In the finale, the Eagles again closed strong at the net, recording a big solo block by junior Allyssa VanWienen and Otte’s last kill to complete the sweep.
Setter Katie Cole tallied 29 assists for the Bucs, while Sophia Newhouse was tops with 15 digs.
Smaka said his squad overcame a number of key injuries throughout the season and still found a way to clinch the program’s first O-K Red title since 2012. What’s even more encouraging is the Bucs lose just three seniors from this squad.