After splashing through a brutal O-K Red Conference schedule and plenty of non-conference events that featured some of the top talent in the state of Michigan, that novice group has turned into a solid foundation for the Buccaneer swim program.
After a strong showing at the O-K Red Conference postseason meet, the Bucs were able to send nine swimmers to this weekend’s Division 1 state meet at Oakland University.
“It’s exciting. We had a great season this year,” said Grand Haven head coach Doug Thorne. “We had 48 guys on the team this year, and they tapered really, really well. Two weeks ago, at the conference meet, it was an exciting time. We had nine guys qualifying for the state meet. Other than Sam Hankinson, we have all of those guys coming back next year, too.
“We’ve grown a lot over the course of the season. These guys have really worked hard and come a long way. I told them earlier this week, ‘this is an honor to qualify at the Division 1 level. We are part of an elite group of athletes that are still competing at a very high level.”
No one on the Grand Haven roster is swimming at a higher level than junior Grant Ruster, who qualified individually in the 200-yard individual medley (1:58.97) and the 100 breaststroke (1:00.79).
“Grant has been consistent all season,” Thorne added. “He made the state cut in the 200 (IM) early on, but has continued to push himself to improve on his time. He qualified last year as well, so he knows the grind, and he’s got high hopes heading into this year’s competition.
“I know he’s hoping to place in the top eight his two events, and I think he should definitely finish in the top 16.”
Another qualifier from last year’s squad, junior Jordan Devries, qualified in the 100 freestyle (48.93) again this winter. While Thorne is happy that the two leaders made the trek back to the final event, he knows they can’t just be happy to be there.
“We aren’t just going there to be content,” he added. “We’re going there to do our jobs and have a good performance. Grant and Jordan have pushed the younger guys these past few weeks to get better and the kids have really responded well.”
FINAL CUT FAHEY
One of the surprises of the qualifying group was junior Matt Fahey, who made the state cut in the 500-yard freestyle (4:53.04) at the conference meet two weeks ago.
“I thought I might make it in the 200 freestyle, but coach (Thorne) pushed me (in the 500), I worked hard throughout the season and I finally qualified for it at the conference meet,” said Fahey. “I didn’t necessarily see that early on, but coach believed in me, and I put in the hard work to reach that goal.
“I think the team atmosphere really helped me throughout the season, too. When I finally got the qualifying mark on the last day of conference, it was a special moment. I immediately got out of the pool and celebrated with my teammates. I was just so proud of my team and myself. It really felt like a collective achievement to me.”
Thorne’s positive vibes helped Fahey realize his own personal potential, but it took awhile for that concept to take root in Fahey’s psyche.
“It was actually the day before I hit the mark that I started to believe that I could make the cut,” Fahey admitted. “Doug (Thorne) told me that I could go to state, but I really had to push it. He felt fully confident that I could do it. I was teetering on the edge there for a little bit. I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be able to do it, and I was a little nervous.
“Then, on the first day at the conference meet, I really pushed it, and just missed the mark by one second, even with my foot slipping on the gutter midway through the race. That’s when I knew, right then and there, that I was going to make the state cut the next day.”
Fahey often felt like he was trying to play catch up to some of the veterans on the roster, but he never let them deter him from trying. He’ll take that same attitude to his marathon swim this weekend.
“When I first started swimming, I didn’t really think I would go too far,” he said.
“I was one of those kids that had gotten into the sport late. I didn’t start until middle school, so I didn’t think I really had much of a chance to swim that fast.
“Through coaching, hard work, and dedication, I made it through. Personally, I’d like to drop three or four seconds off my time at the state meet. Coach seems to think that’s achievable. In an event like that, it really comes down to giving it your all. That’s what makes the difference.”
Grand Haven also qualified three relay teams to this weekend’s event.
In the 200 medley relay (1:39.62), freshman Carter Brown, sophomores Eli Vandenbrand, Ethan Ball, Mark Wilgenburg and Jackson Hamm join senior Sam Hankinson along with Ruster and Devries.
In the 200 freestyle relay (1:31.00) and 400 freestyle relay (3:18.49), Fahey replaces Hankinson in the grouping. The unique blend of age groups hasn’t been a challenge according to two of the elder statesmen on the team.
“It’s an entirely new group of guys, so it’s a new team and a new dynamic,” said Devries. “We had really strong senior captains last year, and this year, a new group took over that role. So it’s been an interesting change, but it’s all been pretty positive.”
“I like it,” said Ruster of the leadership role. “It’s pretty new for me, but I think I’m pretty good at it. I like being a leader. I’ll get on people if they are messing around at practice. We come here to work and get our yards in, especially these last two weeks.”
Devries and Ruster also agreed that the O-K Red Conference meet helped push the entire team, resulting in some additional state cuts.
“I think the conference meet really builds up the hype and pushes you to swim faster,” Ruster added. “I made the 100 breaststroke, and we made two of the relay cuts at the event, so I think that was a result of the level of competition we were up against.”
“The O-K Red has some of the top talent in the state, no question,” added Devries. “There’s some state champions in that grouping and probably some future state champions, as well. When you’re going up against quality swimmers like that every event, you can only get better from it.”
Regardless of this weekend’s results, expect this group of Buccaneers to rise the tide of the Grand Haven program for years to come.