The Grand Haven soccer team took on a familiar foe in their regional semifinal matchup at Portage Northern High School on Tuesday, facing off with O-K Red Champion East Kentwood for the third time this season.
The Bucs put together a solid performance in the cold, wind and rain, giving the defending state champs and winners of three of the last six titles, a run for their money, before eventually falling 2-0 to end their season.
After two losses to the Falcons during the regular season, their playoff matchup was all about grit and willing themselves to compete with a high-flying East Kentwood team, despite horrendous conditions.
“The kids were competing hard. This is playoff soccer,” Grand Haven head coach Aaron Dean said. “It is raining, it’s wet, it’s cold, that is exactly how it should be.
“(Tuesday), it wasn’t important for us to play pretty. We just had to find a way to compete as hard as we could, and I think we did a good job of that. We gave them a game, and that is what we came to do.”
The Bucs were able to control a potent Falcon offense for the entire first half, but broke down in the meat of the second period, letting two goals slip by in 10 minutes to seal their fate.
The contest began with an even battle for midfield. Both teams launched quality scoring chances, but couldn’t get on target in the opening 10 minutes.
The Bucs settled in first, controlling possession for the next 10 minutes with strong midfield play and efficient defensive clearing. While Conner Lund, Joe Walsh and Mason Mahacek attempted to spread the Falcon defense, Jarrett Prins, Trent Perkins and Grand Haven’s backline forced outside shots and denied a pair of set piece plays to keep the Bucs in the driver’s seat.
Photos from Tuesday’s game
The pressure from Grand Haven’s strikers bent but couldn’t break a strong East Kentwood defense. As the half wore on, momentum shifted away from the Bucs.
Kentwood took control of midfield, finally settling into lengthier possessions, but continued to rip outside shots harmlessly at first-half keeper Jake Thayer.
After a few dangerous possessions for the Bucs in the closing minutes of the half, the scoreless tie reached halftime.
The second half opened with an immediate Falcon attack, as they drew a foul for a free kick just outside of the box. The Bucs’ defense put their growth since their regular season matchups on display, killing the attempt with ease.
The ensuing attack put Walsh and Lund in the Falcon box with the ball, but traffic and slippery conditions saw the chance wasted.
With 31 minutes left in the game, East Kentwood lit the scoreboard with a worm-burner shot from the top of the box. On its way through a crowded box, the ball ricocheted off a Grand Haven defender, bouncing just out of reach of second-half keeper Filiberto Juarez.
“We had a little bit of a breakdown defensively there,” Dean said. “Their No. 10 is really good up top, so we were really trying to deny him the ball. That was one where he created the shot and put a good rip on the ground. In a wet situation like that coming through a crowd, that is a tough shot.”
Grand Haven responded with another attack at the box, but were forced to the edge for a corner kick. The set piece was cleared harmlessly and the Falcons regained possession control.
With 21 minutes left to play, they struck again from the top of the box. Another long-rip from centerfield found its way through traffic and past Juarez to put the Falcons up, 2-0.
“That second one, they found their target and he was able to make it happen,” Dean said. “In that second half, they moved some guys around and found some gaps on us. We got stretched a bit and that created the space they played in. They have good players that took advantage of those adjustments.”
Now facing a daunting deficit, the Bucs struggled to push the ball out of their defensive zone against a well-coordinated Falcon defense. With a comfortable lead, they could focus entirely on locking Grand Haven down.
“They are great defensively. They had a lot of kids defending, they are organized in the back and their goal keeper is strong. It was really our struggle in the midfield to win possession that hurt us,” Dean said. “We got pushed back and weren’t able to find our way into midfield as easily, so when we did we had farther to go.”
In the closing minutes of the game, Grand Haven managed a few quality shots, but they proved to be too little, too late.
“We had our looks in the first half, but couldn’t get them to go,” Dean said. “Late in the game there, we had some good looks. It would have been nice to get one and see what would have happened, but you got to finish your chances when you get them.”
The loss brings an end to a hard-fought season for the team. The Bucs finished their season 15-4-3, adding a district title to a long list of Grand Haven soccer achievements, a victory not lost on coach Dean, or his players.
“Every team starts off the year and they want to be state champs. Everyone has seen ‘Hoosiers’, and they want that,” Dean said. “The reality is, we aren’t always going to have that. This team put together a good season and beat some really good teams. The whole year, we put ourselves in a position to compete at a high level.
“To put something up in the gym that will be there forever, and to put a trophy in the case that will be there forever, is hard to do. We have been fortunate enough to win a lot of district championships, so I hope these kids never think it is routine, or easy. The dedication and the work they put in, all the way back to the youth stuff they all did, without that kind of effort, it is really hard to win. The reward is they get to be part of the tradition.”
The accomplishments and bond of the 2017 Grand Haven soccer squad will hold special significance for Dean, as they came in the last of his 17 years coaching the team.
“I’m trying not to think about it. It is hard,” Dean said. “You get emotional at the end because it is the last time you are with the kids. This group, you never get to have them again. It is my last high school game, but if it wasn’t I would still be emotional because it is the last time with this group. That is the part that is special.
“This team, the way they joke around and kid each other at practice, while doing all the hard work, there is something special about them. They are a really, really good group to go out with. They are fantastic in the way they care about each other and support each other, how hard they work and how they bought into everything we did. They are very special.”