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Buccaneers crowned district champs

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:48 AM

“Not really,” she said.

Don’t blame Cole for being cocky in victory; it’s just an overwhelming feeling of confidence shared by Cole and her teammates who have won a stellar 24 games in a row in an eight-match winning streak. 

The eighth victory in the streak was the most celebrated — a 25-18, 25-19, 25-17 victory over the Sailors that allowed the Bucs to hoist a district championship trophy.

“We knew coming in we could do this,” Cole added. “It was just a matter of staying mentally tough. That’s big with this team. If we’re focused and we don’t get rattled, we feel unbeatable.”

For the past week, the Bucs have been unbeatable. They dropped the first two games to Grandville in the round-robin format of the O-K Red Conference Tournament last Thursday, then proceeded to take the next three against the Bulldogs. That started a streak of five straight wins to wrap up the league title and then two more sweeps in the district tournament en route to Thursday’s showdown with the Sailors.

“They realize that every point is important, not that we’re gonna win or lose some, but that we need to give our best effort on every single point,” Grand Haven coach Aaron Smaka said. “And we have to play together as a team. When we do that, everything else takes care of itself.”

Grand Haven is obviously a different team from the last time it matched up with the Sailors (35-9 overall) — at Mona Shores’ outdoors quad on Sept. 5. In that match, the Sailors exposed some holes in the Bucs’ defense and pulled out a win in the best-of-3 match.

“That was my first match back (from a concussion) and (transfer student) Marisa (Ejups) hadn’t yet played with us,” Cole said. “Defensively, we’re a lot better now. We’ve worked on defense very hard in practice and it’s paid off for us.”

“It’s about moving as one team, not as individuals,” Smaka added. “When you see people surround the ball, and moving to help each other, that’s what it takes.”

On Thursday, it was Grand Haven that impressed by flying around the court and winning several long volleys against Mona Shores, while frustrating the Sailors’ defense with stellar serving. Cole led the charge with five aces, which included a string of three in a row during the Game 2 victory.

In the opener, the Bucs quickly showcased that they presented multiple matchup problems — not solely Cole. Taylor Craymer, Krysteena Davis and Ejups each thrived at the net, as they combined for 17 kills during the match.

The 6-foot-1 Craymer, who previously was thought of as just a threat on the basketball court, worked extremely hard on her volleyball skills over the summer, and she’s been a steady contributor throughout the fall.

“I owe it to everyone else,” she said. “They’ve pushed me to get better.”

After Cole’s serving success, Jami Hogeboom got into the groove as well in Game 2, adding two more aces to push the Bucs’ lead to 11-4. The Sailors closed to within 20-15 on a pair of top-spin-heavy aces by Kathryn Laban, but Grand Haven got key points down the stretch on a tip by Hogeboom and a game-clinching fire ball kill by Davis.

Grand Haven could sense it had the Sailors on the ropes midway through Game 3, especially after Davis smashed down a free ball for a 13-9 Bucs’ advantage. From there, Cole demonstrated why she’s one of the most feared players in the state, as she had two blistering kills — from the back row. She totaled 16 kills, five aces and a nine digs — a surprising stat for a player who stands 6-5.

“We told Abby in the spring that we wanted her to play all the way around and it’s a challenge she’s accepted,” Smaka said. “Defensively, her length allows her to get to a lot of balls and get a hand on a lot of balls. And offensively, she presents such a huge threat that other teams have to account for.”

Hogeboom shined in multiple areas with 35 assists, 14 digs and a few key points on tips at the net. Defensively, Ejups tied for the team lead with 14 digs, while Andrea Smith and Craymer each added nine.

Grand Haven now sets its sights on regionals and becoming the first team in program history to hoist a trophy in that round. Despite hosting the regional, the Bucs are scheduled to play the regional semifinals at Petoskey against the winner of the Gaylord district on Tuesday.

“At this point, let’s just go play,” Smaka said, choosing not to dwell on the long bus ride that awaits his team.

Besides, the Bucs are more concerned about what could happen on their home floor in the regional championship match two days later.

“(A regional title) is more than possible,” Cole said. “We want to leave a legacy.”

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