By Dave Tomczak

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – The Grand Haven girls volleyball team faced its toughest test of the Division 1 district tournament on Thursday on the road against host Reeths-Puffer.

And the Rockets gave the Buccaneers all they could handle, but by the end of the night, Grand Haven was right where it usually is this time of year, celebrating a district championship.

The Bucs defeated Reeths-Puffer 25-17, 25-17, 25-17 to improve to 34-18-2 on the season, and advance to next week’s regional tournament in their own gym. Grand Haven will open on Tuesday against the winner of the Wyoming-Caledonia district final.

The victory gave Grand Haven its 12th straight district title, and an amazing 17th in the last 18 years.

“I think this team is really focused and peaking at the right time,” said Grand Haven Coach Aaron Smaka. “We always talk about how we want to be playing our best in November.”

After cruising through the first two rounds of districts, Grand Haven was pushed by the young Rockets, who matched the Bucs point-for-point for most of the night, but allowed short runs that made the difference.

In the opening set, the teams were tied at 5-5, before the Bucs ran off six unanswered points behind the serving of Samantha Boeve and the strong net game of Mackenzie Gross.

The Rockets pulled within 14-13, but once again the Bucs pulled away, this time with a 4-0 run.

The second set was more of the same, with Grand Haven pulling away from a 7-7 tie, using three different 4-0 runs to its advantage.

“Grand Haven is different than any team we’ve played all year,” said Rockets coach Alex Rykse. “They’re really good, and good at putting the ball away. It’s hard to get any momentum when a team is that good at getting points.”

Reeths-Puffer jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the third set, but the Bucs scored the next five points, and eventually built a 17-13 lead.

Grand Haven’s Ashley Slater scored four of her team’s next five points, before Gross’ partially blocked shot fell to the floor for the 25th and final point and the district title.

“It feels awesome,” Slater said. “We’re really starting to pull it together, because we know that if we lose it’s our last game. Our energy never dropped and we just wanted to win.”

The Bucs finished with 50 kills on the night, with Slater and Gross finishing with 14 apiece.

Ashlyn Hall had 45 assists for Grand Haven, Slater added two aces and 13 digs, and Baby Hang and Reilly Sweibert finished with 12 digs apiece.

“We’ve always known we had the athletes, but we’ve just had problems getting them the ball,” Smaka said. “But to see that come together (tonight), maybe it’ll give us some momentum going into the regionals.”

The Rockets, who finished 18-29 on the season, were led by Bridget McHugh with eight kills and five digs, Anna Young with seven kills and six digs, and Abigayle Mitchelson with 22 assists.