The Grand Haven boys soccer team dominated Hudsonville in their first matchup of the season to the tune of a 7-0 thrashing and added a 3-0 road win a few weeks later.
Saturday’s Division 1 district championship match between the two programs proved to be a much more difficult challenge than many anticipated, however, as Grand Haven had to dig deep to find the winning plays in a 2-0 win over Hudsonville.
The Buccaneers advance to face East Kentwood in the Division 1 regional semifinals on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Portage Northern High School. The Falcons defeated Forest Hills Central 2-1 in the district finals.
Photos from Saturday’s match
More photos from Saturday’s match
The Buccaneers and the Eagles battled for possession through the first 40 minutes with neither team netting a goal.
After both teams ramped up the intensity in the second half, the Buccaneers had a few looks at a potential game-defining goal.
Then, with 23 minutes left in regulation, Grand Haven senior forward Conner Lund sent a ball at the Hudsonville net. The Eagles’ keeper stopped the initial attempt, but failed to corral the loose ball.
Buccaneer senior Trent Perkins, who was crashing hard to the net, slammed home the rebound shot into the back of the net to give Grand Haven a 1-0 lead.
“I just knew that I had to follow No. 4 on their team. He’s a great defender and he had been all over me the whole game,” said Perkins. “I just followed him to the play, my instincts kicked in, I beat him to the ball and I kicked it in the net.”
Hudsonville was forced out of their defensive scheme after that, and Grand Haven used that opportunity to stretch the field. The Buccaneers fended off the Eagles’ advances, limiting Hudsonville to only two shot attempts the rest of the way.
With the clock running down to the final 10 seconds and the Buccaneers already preparing to celebrate, Grand Haven junior forward Mason Mahacek split a pair of Hudsonville defenders and sent a shot past the keeper with three seconds remaining to leave no doubt.
As the clock expired, the Grand Haven soccer team celebrated a well-earned district championship.
“That was a good win for us,” Perkins added. “We struggled in the beginning of the game, but we came together at halftime and kind of rallied around each other and got a good result in the second half.
“I just thought our effort wasn’t there in the first half. I think we would all say that we could have played a lot better in that first half, and I think we showed in the second half that we are a better team than that.”
The Buccaneers drew added motivation from last year’s finish, when the team let a two-goal lead slip away against Grand Rapids Union, before falling to the Red Hawks in a penalty kick shootout.
“Last year, we had it in our grasp and we kind of let it slip away,” said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Dean. “Every season is different and every team is a new group with their own identity and their own goals. It’s always nice for a senior class to get a district title, so I’m happy for all the seniors.”
Dean thought playing Hudsonville twice during the regular season and winning both contests handily might have caused the club to overlook the Eagles.
“I think that hurt us a little bit. We might have been too relaxed,” he continued. “I think our mindset was a little too casual early on. I think we expected to just show up and take care of business, but nothing is ever that easy in the playoffs.”
The Eagles added a twist to their defensive coverage in the third match against Grand Haven, opting to deploy a defensive-heavy scheme against the high-powered Buccaneers’ attack.
“They played a little differently today than they had played us the previous matches,” added Dean. “They played with four defenders back and then a holding midfielder, too. They were a little heavy in the back, but more than anything, they were playing with passion and intensity and we didn’t match that in the first 40 minutes.
“They were winning all the 50-50 balls and winning possession on those plays. We just kind of had a look like, ‘what just happened?’ so we talked at halftime about attacking the game and not just relying on skill to win games. We have to bring the energy and really go for it.
“There wasn’t anything tactical that we changed in the second half; we just tried to light a fire under them at halftime and I think we played much more inspired in the last 40.”
The district title was a source of redemption for Grand Haven after coming so close in 2016. Now, the 2017 squad can be remembered fondly in the halls of Grand Haven High School whenever you gaze upon the school’s trophy case.
“Once you win a district title, your team is immortalized forever,” Dean said. “Your team photo gets put up, your year gets added to the banner and your trophy goes in the trophy case. So, we talked before the game about what that should mean to us. We talked about the fact that if we didn’t win this match; we’ll probably be the only ones who remember this team in the long run.
“So, I couldn’t be prouder of this group of kids for getting that done. It’s a great group of kids, and they’ve really made this season enjoyable.”
The third time wasn’t a charm for Hudsonville, but this Buccaneers squad might have a lucky streak left in them as they prepare to take on the O-K Red Conference champions of East Kentwood (17-4).
The Falcons defeated Grand Haven twice this season with a 3-2 win at Grand Haven and a 4-0 shutout win at home.
It’ll take 80 minutes of passion, energy and effort for the Bucs to knock off the league champs, but as they say — it’s hard to beat a good team three times.