The Buccaneers edged past the Pioneers (25-21, 25-23, 25-22) in three highly competitive sets to advance to Thursday’s regional final at East Kentwood High School.
“Any time you win a regional match, you’re happy,” said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. “At this point of the year, with the competition as tough as it is, it’s really all about surviving and moving on.
“That’s a great East Grand Rapids team. They tested us. They were serving us tough and they were moving us around a lot. You have to give them credit for that. They are a well-coached team and we’re happy we were able to survive that. I’m proud of how our kids came out. It was a solid effort from everybody.”
A key point in the match came in the second set when the Pioneers lead 11-6 over the Bucs. Grand Haven would bounce back to take the set, 25-23, and extinguish any momentum EGR had.
“We called a timeout at one point and huddled up,” Smaka said of the second set. “We just said, ‘don’t quit, never give up’, and that’s something this team believes. In that third set, I felt like we could really pull away from them. We would build a lead, and then give it back up. That kept happening and we had that zigzag thing going.
“When we get a lead like that, we have to maintain that intensity and not let up. We made things a little harder on ourselves than we needed to, but you have to love the fight these kids showed. During every single point, there was total investment from every single player on the bench.
“That was such a cool thing to see when all 15 kids were totally involved.”
Senior outside hitter Olivia Boeve recorded 12 kills and 13 digs to lead the Bucs (48-9), while senior middle hitter Claire Holman added 10 kills.
Sophomore middle hitter Avolyn Lepo added eight kills and three blocked shots, while senior outside hitter Morgan Ross had nine kills.
Senior setter Katie Cole led the team in assists with 38 and added 17 digs, while senior libero Sophia Newhouse led the Bucs defense with 25 digs.
“In the first set, Avolyn (Lepo) started going off, and I thought both of our middles did a really great job running tonight,” Smaka added. “Claire (Holman) and Avoyln Lepo had a tough job, because we ran a lot of up tempo and ran whenever we could. They both made a lot of plays around the net and really helped establish some momentum early on in the match.
“Morgan and Olivia were really, really good tonight. We just had really good balance tonight, and when we passed the ball well, we were really tough to beat. That’s been a recurring theme for us lately.
“Morgan got gradually better and better as the night went on, and both of our middles were strong from start to finish. Katie did a great job distributing and Sophia was great defensively. She had 25 digs in three sets, which is just incredible. She had some big digs for us that kept points alive on a lot of bang-bang plays.”
Grand Rapids Christian swept the Buccaneers in last year’s regional semifinal, but this year’s squad knew dwelling on that finish wouldn’t help them beat East Grand Rapids.
“It never came up,” Smaka said. “It’s crazy that we never really talked about it, but we had to play the game that lied ahead of us. We knew EGR was going to be tough, and we know whomever we play Thursday will be another challenge.
“We know where we want to go, but we can’t look ahead and we can’t look back at the past. That’s the fastest way for a team to lose focus, play poorly and get beat. This group has embraced that and never looked back.”
It appeared the Pioneers came into Tuesday night’s matchup with a different strategy than they had shown in previous matches.
“They attacked the heck out of the ball against Grand Rapids Christian and Caledonia, but sure enough, like a lot of teams do, they tried to tip on us more,” Smaka said. “I thought our kids made some good adjustments on those tip plays and didn’t let that surprise take us out of our own game.”
The Buccaneers will face a familiar foe in O-K Red Conference rival Rockford in the Class A regional final Thursday at 6 p.m. at East Kentwood High School.
The Rams defeated the Bucs in both regular season conference meetings.