The senior-laden Buccaneers traveled to Holland on Thursday for another crack at the regional field, which featured plenty of O-K Red Conference rivals, along with some talented players from outside the area.
The Buccaneers battled through the loaded field, but came up short in their quest to qualify for the state finals as a team.
Grandville took top honors with 22 points, nipping fellow O-K Red Conference foe Hudsonville with 20 points. The Bulldogs and the Eagles will both advance to the state finals at Greater Midland Tennis Center next weekend.
West Ottawa finished third with 17 points, Rockford finished fourth with 16 and Grand Haven came in fifth with 15.
However, Grand Haven did see plenty of individuals rise above the rest of their flights and come away with individual regional championships.
At No. 1 singles, sophomore Noah Bachmann exorcised the demons of last season, which saw him fall in the semifinal round. The talented 10th-grader upended his opponent in straight sets in the semifinal round of play in a dominant display of strength and accuracy.
By advancing to the championship round at No. 1 singles, Bachmann automatically qualifies as an individual for next weekend’s state finals.
In his championship match, Bachmann was tested against arguably his toughest challenge of his young career in Kalamazoo Loy Norrix sophomore Reed Crocker. The sophomore standout for the Knights is currently ranked 83rd in the nation and third overall in the state.
Crocker defeated Bachmann in straight sets, but the young Buc standout pushed his highly touted opponent in the second set of play, giving Bachmann confidence to grow on.
“He’s a really good player, and he’s ranked nationally. He plays pretty much year-round,” said Bachmann. “He had a really good pace to his play, and he hit the ball really hard, which made it more difficult to get to the ball and be prepared for the shot. It was tough, but that’s probably the toughest match I’ve had so far.”
According to Bachmann, losing in the semifinals last season while being one win away from the state finals has been in the back of his mind all offseason.
“That motivated me a lot,” he admitted. “It gave me something to stay focused on and work toward. My goal was to get back here, not mess up in the same spot that I did as a freshman, and make it to the state finals.
“I think a lot of it is just experience. I think my lack of experience kind of hurt me at times last year. With that year under my belt, I knew what to expect, and I came into matches more prepared. I think that has helped a lot, especially against some of the better opponents.”
Bachmann appreciates the opportunity he has in front of him at the state finals and hopes to use the experience to make him a better player.
“It means a lot to me. Very few people get the opportunity to make it to states, so it’s going to be a great experience to get there and experience that level of competition,” he said. “It’s another chance to get better and go up against the best of the best.”
FROM CRAMP TO CHAMP
At No. 2 singles, Spencer Sortman was determined to finish where he left off last season, in the championship round of his flight. As a junior, Sortman fell victim to cramps and dehydration when the tournament was moved indoors due to rain.
This time, he found the extra ounces of determination and energy to close out the match and claim a regional championship in his final high school competition.
“I really stepped up my ground-stroking game today, and I hit a lot of balls in while still hitting through the ball,” said Sortman. “My match against the kid from Loy Norrix in the semifinals was a really good match. He was the No. 1 seed in the flight, and he’s a really good player. In the end, I was just able to hit all of my groundstrokes and overpower him.”
Like Bachmann, Sortman used last year’s narrow loss to fuel his championship run.
“I was sick and cramping last year. It was miserable experience, but I was really determined to get back here this time. This was a great way to end my senior year, and I’m really happy with how I played and how it ended.”
Sortman had to battle through some early season struggles, but may have ended up becoming a better player because of it.
“In the beginning of the year, I was in a bit of slump. I wasn’t hitting the ball very well, and I was losing to opponents that I shouldn’t have lost to,” he admitted. “I just started focusing on hitting through the ball and I think that made a big difference for me.
“I think I’ve been playing the best tennis of my career lately.”
At No. 3 singles, Riley Wilton was out to defend his regional crown after winning the flight championship as a sophomore and junior. In his final regional event, Wilton powered through the field and advanced to the finals brooding with confidence.
In his final match, Wilton had to fight through two competitive sets with West Ottawa’s Michael Hoffman to earn his third straight regional title and end his high school career on a high note.
“I’ve played him three times this year, and I’ve beat him twice. It’s always a battle, but they are all tough at this stage,” said Wilton. “Everyone is good when you get to this point, and a lot of the people you play are from your own conference, so you can’t really surprise anybody.
“I would have never imagined as a freshman that I would eventually win a regional championship back-to-back-to-back like this. It’s like a fairytale ending and it’s more than I could ever imagined. I’m just glad I got to finish it out with everybody on the team here. It’s surreal.”
SETTING THE STANDARD
Despite not qualifying for the state finals as a team, Grand Haven head coach Chris Wilton couldn’t be prouder with how his team played at one of the most competitive regionals in the state.
“Almost everyone on the team won at least one match today. Our No. 4 doubles team lost their first match in a crazy third set,” he said. “That was actually a big improvement from when they played against that same team earlier in the year.
“It’s just really exciting to see everyone play their best at the end of the season and to have three players in the final round of their flights is impressive.”
Wilton knew Spencer Sortman would outplay his seeding at the regional. It was just a matter of him believing in himself.
“By seeds, Spencer probably wasn’t expected to make it to the finals, but he’s a very talented player,” he said. “We knew he could beat anybody in this tournament if he played up to his abilities.
“We really feel like we have three or four No. 1 singles players on our team this year. Spencer is as talented as anyone on our roster and he proved that today.”
Wilton also got to enjoy a proud father moment when he watched his son, Riley, wrap up his high school career with another regional title.
“It takes a high-quality team to make that happen. You have to have talented players ahead of him in order for him to get tested and push himself in challenge matches,” Wilton said. “For him to have that target on his chest and still come through as a regional champion three years in a row is just special.
“I’m really proud of him for battling through that adversity. That pressure has made things difficult at times, but he’s always risen above that. He’s a very competitive kid and he’s used that to his advantage.”
As he watched his No. 1 singles standout perform, Wilton was impressed with how Bachmann was able to overcome the big stage and finish what he started.
“For Noah to get through that semifinal match was impressive, because the kid he played against had been playing lights out all day,” Wilton continued. “He was able to overcome that and use the pressure of that situation to push him to play harder.”
Now, the Grand Haven boys tennis program turns to its underclassmen, which could mean bigger and better things if they take the same approach of the seniors before them.
“It’s a testament to the kids in our program and all the hard work they’ve put in over the course of their careers that we’ve been able to enjoy so much success and battle at regionals like this,” Wilton continued. “Hopefully, this will motivate some of the younger kids in our program to work harder throughout the offseason and see if they can do the same thing next year.
“We have a few freshmen, a few sophomores and a few juniors who will all be coming back, and I know seeing this kind of success will motivate them.
“We appreciate all the seniors who have done so much for this program. They have really raised the bar of this program and helped push it to new limits.”