The Class A regional championship match brought Rockford and Grand Haven together for the third time this season, this time with their playoff lives on the line. After dropping the opening two sets and putting their backs against elimination, the Buccaneers clawed out two wins of their own, forcing a fifth set.
Despite their greatest efforts, they fell to the Rams, 15-9, ending their season.
Photos from Thursday’s regional final
“Nobody can say we quit,” Grand Haven coach Aaron Smaka said. “The girls fought until the very last point. To be down 2-0 and come back and win those third and fourth sets and force a fifth set shows the fight in this group. They gave it everything they had.”
The match, played at East Kentwood High School, featured overwhelming fan support from both sides. It was an electric atmosphere from the first point, which went to the Bucs. From there, the set went back and forth, staying close until Rockford took the final lead change, 7-6, before pulling away to win, 25-15.
Grand Haven opened the second set determined to fight back. They jumped out to a 6-2 lead, forcing a Rockford timeout.
The Bucs held their lead thanks to clutch serving and a few Rockford miscues into the final points of the set. The Rams fought back late, closing a six-point lead to two and eventually zero, tying the game at 23. They would take the last two points, setting them one win away from a regional championship.
Rockford played impenetrable defense through the first two sets, no kill was hard enough or off-speed dink crafty enough to find the hardwood.
“After being down two sets, it would have been easy for our kids to fold and fade out, but we battled back,” Smaka said.
Rockford looked to have things in the bag, grabbing the first three points of the crucial third set. They held that lead until Grand Haven tied the game at eight and seized the lead for good with nine. Top-notch passing and ferocious kills carried the Bucs to a 25-15 victory, forcing a fourth set.
Senior libero Sophia Newhouse put it plainly “We just switched back to a perimeter defense, we decided we were going to play for us, in our style.”
The Grand Haven style worked through the fourth set, but Rockford was refusing to be embarrassed. The two grappled through ties at six, seven, eight, 13 and 15 before Grand Haven finally found some separation.
Momentum swung towards the Bucs once again in the last third of the set, giving them a victory and a do-or-die chance at the regional title.
“Volleyball is a funny sport. It’s all about momentum shifts and those can happen on one play,” Smaka said.
The fifth set was a sprint to 15 points, first one there gets the glory, and the other goes home.
The momentum looked to sit with Grand Haven for the final set, they grabbed a 6-3 lead early, holding it until a tie at seven and eventually giving it up 10-9. Rockford did not look back, scoring the next five points and taking the game.
“Having a team that’s so strong mentally, coming from down two sets and forcing a fifth and being up in the fifth it shows the toughness of this team,” senior Morgan Ross said of the comeback. “We’re just really sad we couldn’t get 15 points before they did.”
“Our motivation was each other,” said fellow senior Katie Cole. “We were going to do it for each other.”
Cole finished with a team high 44 assists, while Newhouse led the team with 40 digs. Ashley Slater took home 11 kills, followed by Avolyn Lepo with 10.
The Bucs finished 48-10 overall, winning a 10th straight district championship in the process.
“We have eight seniors on this team and all of them care about each other and they should be proud of what they gave this program,” Smaka said. “I’m so proud of these seniors, and I’m really going to miss them. Five of them have been with me for three years. The other three have come in and given me everything that they could.”
Rockford will move on to play Portage Central in the state quarterfinal match at Grand Haven High School on Nov. 15.