After a tumultuous regular season featuring injuries, lineup changes, roster additions and a few chaotic losses, the Grand Haven volleyball team put it all together and staged a hostile takeover of the district tournament this week, culminating with a three-set victory over Mona Shores on Thursday night to claim their 11th straight district title.
The 25-16, 25-19, and 25-9 wins capped off the Bucs’ 16th district title in the past 17 seasons and validated a team struggling to find their identity over a tough season.
Photos from Thursday night’s match
“We’ve made a lot of changes this season, and played a lot of kids all year,” Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka said.
“We have certainly had our ups and downs this season and this is the best we have played on a consistent basis all year.”
The defining moment came to kick off the third set. After a narrow victory in Set 2, Grand Haven needed a statement if they were going to clinch; Mona Shores was not going to go easily. The Sailors had other plans, and took the opening point of the set, hoping to start a run into a fourth game.
After tying the game at one, senior Olivia Boeve decided she had seen enough. The outside hitter rose up for a booming kill to give the Bucs a 2-1 lead and place herself at the service line. From there, Grand Haven rattled off 10 straight points, six via Boeve aces, including a streak of four in a row.
The Sailors mustered just nine points in the final set, including two at match point. From blocking to serving to passing and killing, Grand Haven’s game was firing on all cylinders, burying Mona Shores to close out the title.
“This entire team put their hearts into this match and we knew we could win if we played like we were capable of,” Boeve said. “We really built up our confidence with every point we won, and by the start of the third set, we were determined to take them in three (sets).”
Grand Haven proved they were ready from the start, jumping out to an early lead in Set 1. But, Mona Shores has had a special season in their own right, and was eager to take down the Bucs. They tied the game up at 11 and took their first lead at 12-11.
Boeve started the match the same way she ended it — with authority. She terminated a point to tie the game at 12, and then dropped an ace to take the lead at 13-12. The Sailors tied the game once more at 13 before a block and two kills by Ashley Slater put the Bucs in the driver’s seat. A Sailor timeout down 13-16 was no use, as Grand Haven cruised to victory, giving up just three more points in the set.
The second set was the most competitive, as Mona Shores refused to be left behind. The Bucs trailed early, but managed to tie the game at five via Boeve kill. They took their first lead following another kill-ace combo by Boeve. Two errors threatened to derail the Bucs, but a well-orchestrated timeout got them back on track.
“Early on in the game we were getting good touches on the block but they were coming through on our side, so we talked about spreading out our block a little and making sure we pressed,” Smaka said. “They have two really good hitters out there, so we talked about improving our block and keeping up the defensive effort.”
The Sailors forced a tie at 15, but were silenced by clutch Grand Haven defense. They took a 20-16 lead and never looked back. The win was the first got three Bucs in three meetings.
“We knew we had grown since we last saw them,” Smaka said. “We knew having Avolyn back and having our middles would be a huge factor, Boeve played absolutely great tonight, like one of the best players in the state tonight.
“Our setter did a nice job distributing the ball, that is the best they have played and the best decision making they displayed all year. Ashlyn and Sam both did a great job out there and on top of all that we had so many kids just making plays.”
Boeve led the offense with 13 kills on the evening, to go with a team-high eight aces. Slater followed with six kills ahead of Kelly Klouw with four. Ashlyn Hall led the setters with 16 assists, followed by Samantha Boove with 10.
Baby Hang anchored the defense with 15 digs, leading Bovee who had 10. Avery Strohmeyer dominated the net with six total blocks, followed by Avolyn Lepo with three.
The celebration was sweet for a team finally finding their identity in the postseason. After graduating eight seniors onto college ball last season, the 2017 squad was left wondering if they had what it takes.
“We never talk about the streak, we want each team to be the best team they can be,” Smaka said. “This team I think to a certain degree felt the pressure. In the back of their minds they felt like they had to live up to expectations.”
“The tradition here means so much for me,” Boeve said. “As a Grand Haven volleyball player, you’re kind of built up through this culture where you’re expected to do big things in the playoffs. This is something that we traditionally do.”
Those expectations felt especially heavy in the midst of an up-and-down season for the Bucs, which saw uncharacteristic losses and jumbled lineups all the way up to the postseason.
“We joked, we sure are glad it is November, because October was not good to us,” Smaka said. “This season has had its ups and downs. We always want to be playing at this level in November, and we haven’t been. Even the last few weeks have been a little crazy. It is so nice to be able to finally turn the page to the postseason.
“In just the last week or month this team has begun to find their identity. The seniors have talked about how this is their last go, and they don’t want it to end and are giving it everything they’ve got, and the underclassmen have bought it, the team seems to be coming together at the perfect time.
“In terms of the program, it speaks to all the players and coaches that have come through and been a part of this, and the fact that a lot of people have put in a lot of time to make these 11 years happen. This group is proud to keep that going.”
With a newfound love for each other, their history and their game, the Bucs will look to charge into the regional tournament with gusto next week. They will take on the winner Caledonia and No. 3 Grand Rapids Christian at Jenison High School. First serve is slated for 5 p.m. Tuesday.