But with a lot of new faces and underclassmen finding their way at the varsity level, the 80 minutes of intensity mindset that it takes to be successful in the O-K Red Conference and beyond wasn't always met by Dean's crew this fall.
A lot of that explains the Bucs' less-than-spectacular 9-8-3 record.
Now in a win-or-stay-home format, the Bucs transformed from laid back to on-the-attack against visiting Grandville and the result was a surprising easy 4-0 win over the Bulldogs on Tuesday in the Division 1 district opener at Buccaneer Stadium.
Grand Haven featured crisp, one-touch passing from the get-go; its midfielders and defenders continually hounded the Bulldogs; and its offensive playmakers capitalized in opportune times.
Pretty much, it was the perfect formula for a victory against a team that had beaten the Bucs earlier in the year.
Grand Haven advances to Thursday's semifinals against Hudsonville, which defeated Grand Rapids Union on Tuesday, 2-1. The Bucs defeated the Eagles in two previous meetings this fall.
“We can continue to be laid back, but we can't be a lazy team, not at this point,” Dean said. “We've got to do the work, we can't take any short cuts. Until everyone on this field is working their tail off, until everyone is making those runs, and until everyone's lungs are screaming, we're not working hard enough.
“Tonight, we started to get that work rate, which matches the talent level.”
Bucs' senior forward Willie Bennick wasted little time in showcasing his talent, as he caught a pair of Grandville defenders off guard with his speed deep in Bulldogs' territory, split the duo and fired a high rocket over the head of Grandville goalie Jordan Sweezer just 1 minute, 15 seconds into the game.
“That was huge,” Dean said. “That got us rolling.”
“It was a great way to start things out,” said Bennick, who also had two assists in the game.
Bennick’s next contribution was even more impressive, as he fed teammate Kevin LaCroix with an on-the-money pass from 20 yards away that slipped through a crowd of 'Dawgs. LaCroix did the rest, taking the tremendous feed and depositing it into the lower left corner of the net for a 2-0 advantage with 5:57 left in the first half.
“I'm not sure I could make that pass again,” Bennick said with a grin. “It was just a through ball and I stopped it and placed it exactly where I wanted it to go. Right on the money.”
Grand Haven players weren't afraid to share their delight following the one-sided first half, as one Buc shouted “they can't stay with us,” within earshot of the Bulldogs at the intermission.
For the most part, it was a spot-on assessment.
“We wanted it more individually than they did,” Bennick said. “We knew how we needed to play coming in.”
The Bucs allowed just two shots on goal during the game, a fact that Dean said was due more to his team's ability to control the ball.
“How's the saying go, 'The best defense is a good offense?'” Dean said. “That's how it boiled down for us. Once we got a good offensive rhythm going, it takes some of the pressure off of our defense. We've actually defended well all season, but when we're under pressure, you're bound to allow a goal here and there. With that attacking piece in place, it helps everyone out.”
Grand Haven continued to break down Grandville's defense, and it resulted in a fortunate bounce for the Bucs' third goal. Junior Gerrit Schaap's shot on goal from 20 yards away likely would have been saved by Sweezer, but the ball struck the side of Grandville's Ameer Abden, and redirected it away from Sweezer and into the net.
Grand Haven goalie Corey Vanderlaan kept the shutout in tact with a spectacular save after the Bucs were called for a handball just outside of the penalty box. Abdeen sent a blistering blast to the lower left that Vanderlaan pushed away with a diving effort.
Sweezer was caught out-of-position on the Bucs' final goal, as he was unsuccessful in tracking down a swooping ball through the box. It was sent back on the bounce to Jon Buitenhuis, who headed it into a wide-open goal.
The Bucs totaled eight shots on goal and nearly had as many corner kicks.
Dean said there's no reason why the Bucs cannot make another long postseason run and spark memories of last year's trek to the Division 1 state finals.
“Absolutely it's possible,” he said. “I don't think the kids believed it at the start of the season and I'm not even sure if I knew where we'd end up. The record isn't all the great, but we've played some really good teams and we've played them tough. If we can turn it up a notch, play one degree better, instead of those those 1-0, 2-1 scores, we'll be on the other side of the fence.”