By Dave Tomczak
The Buccaneers faced O-K Red Conference foe Caledonia in the opening round on Tuesday, and with a win, would run into the winner of Hudsonville-Rockford, two more teams from the O-K Red.
Grand Haven may be familiar with those teams, but it hadn’t defeated any of them this year.
“We’re 0-8 against all the teams in it,” Bucs coach Aaron Smaka said after winning districts. “So we feel we have nothing to lose.”
Nothing to lose indeed, and they didn’t on Tuesday. The Bucs showed they have put the regular season behind them by overcoming early deficits in the opening two sets and earning a hard-fought 25-19, 27-25, 25-23 win over Caledonia at home Tuesday.
The Bucs now advance to Thursday’s regional final against Rockford at home at 7 p.m. The Rams won an epic match against Hudsonville in the nightcap Tuesday, 19-25, 21-25, 26-24, 26-24, 15-11.
The winner of Thursday’s final will earn a spot in the Division 1 state quarterfinals.
“We’re really excited to be back in the regional finals,” Smaka said. “We had a few lapses tonight, but we tried to stay in the moment and not worry. Even with a few rough spells, I thought we played a really good match.”
Grand Haven started off slow, falling behind the Fighting Scots 10-4 in the first set, before Smaka called a time out to settle the girls down.
“(Coach) called that time out and we just collected ourselves,” said Bucs outside hitter Ashley Slater. “We just thought about why we’re here and what we needed to do.”
The Bucs rolled after that, outscoring Caledonia 21-9, including an 11-2 run.
The second set started just as slowly for Grand Haven, which found itself down 10-4 yet again, then 17-10.
But the Bucs remained calm, chipped away at the lead, eventually pulled even at 20-20. The teams exchanged points before the Scots served for the set at 24-23. But Slater and Mackenzie Gross responded with back-to-back kills and Avolyn Lepo finished the set off with a block, and the Bucs had a 2-0 set lead.
“It shows toughness,” Smaka said. “The last month of the season we dropped a lot of those close sets, and now I think the girls are confident in those close, end-of-the-game situations.”
Grand Haven led for most of the third set, building a 20-14 lead, before the Scots pulled even at 23-23.
But a block for a point and a net ball on match point clinched the victory and propelled the Bucs into the regional finals.
“The reality of this region is we were 0-8 against these teams,” Smaka said. “We hadn’t beaten one of these teams until tonight, but we feel like we can win. We had 51 kills tonight and that continues the trend we had in districts, and to continue that in regionals is a really, really good sign for us.”