After coasting to a district title last weekend, the plan was to cruise through the first two regional rounds over Grandville and Hudsonville to arrange a meeting with the top-ranked Rockford Rams. A victory there would instill tremendous confidence for the title-hungry Bucs, while a loss would set them up for an uninterrupted run to the state title game for a rematch.
Of course, the playoffs never go according to plan. After dismissing Grandville in the opening round, 13-2, and officially clinching a spot in the state tournament with a top-four finish in the region, a pesky Hudsonville squad got the jump on the Bucs in the semifinal.
After defeating the Eagles twice in the regular season and once in the semifinal round of the district tournament (9-3), Hudsonville was eager to exact revenge on the Bucs.
A ferocious attack from the jump shot the Eagles to a 4-0 lead over Grand Haven in the first quarter. They held a four-goal lead at halftime before letting the Bucs back in the game in the fourth quarter, setting up an electric final minute and heartbreaking 6-7 loss for Grand Haven.
“We came out really slow,” Grand Haven head coach Bill Hamm said. “We gave them some early goals on outside shots they shouldn’t have gotten off, we just weren’t defending well enough up top. We just didn’t come out fired up and ready to go, we eventually found that desire, which you have to have.”
With 1:04 left to play, Hudsonville cleaned up a rebound on Grand Haven keeper Matt Beals’ doorstep, taking a one-goal lead. On the next possession, the Bucs drew a 6-on-5, opening the door for some last-minute heroics. After a timeout for some chalk talk, the Bucs set up their power play. Rushed passing doomed the play from the start, as Hudsonville intercepted a pass to take possession.
Joshua Koornneef nearly saved the game, regaining possession by forcing a turnover and passing off to Ruster, who converted an outside shot to tie the game with 29 seconds left. On the next possession, the Eagles continued their improbable game, scoring a backhanded shot with 16 seconds left to play.
The Bucs couldn’t convert on their final play of the game, giving the Eagles a victory and the chance to play Rockford in the title round.
“We beat them twice during the year, but just couldn’t do it when we needed to,” Hamm said. “We made a lot of youthful mistakes today for a team that has been playing the game for a long time. We have the physical part of the game down, now we need that mental strength.
With calls not going their way from the start of the game and well executed drop pressure from Hudsonville, Grand Haven was unable to run their typical offense through hole set, throwing off their game plan entirely.
“There were no calls whatsoever, Hamm said. “If the fouls are happening but aren’t getting called, you can’t run your offense. We were taking too long to set up, then once we did we weren’t getting the fouls in hole set like we should be, taking us out of our offensive norm.”
After trailing at halftime, the Bucs were able to get a little offense going in the third, courtesy of Fritz. The senior superstar netted four unanswered goals to pull Grand Haven back in the game, setting up the wild fourth quarter.
The loss sent the Bucs to the consolation bracket to play for their playoff seed. They squared off with Jenison to fight for the No. 3 seed and to avoid playing defending state runner-up Okemos in the opening round.
True to form for the weekend, the Bucs struggled pull away from an inferior Jenison team. They led 4-3 after one quarter and 6-3 at halftime, before letting the Wildcats back in the game in the third to kick off the final period tied at six.
More final-minute antics threatened to derail the Bucs late again, but they held strong, controlling possession down the stretch to ice the 8-7 victory.
“Sloppy, just sloppy,” Hamm said. “We did not play at our high ability this weekend. We played at the level of our opponent. We need to play Grand Haven water polo, not let the other team play their game and us try to keep up.
“We had a goal to get to the state tournament, and it is always fun to do well at the regional, but I think the sigh if relief after Grandville and some anticipation for two weeks from now at the state tournament that distracted us today.”
Nov. 10 brings championship weekend to Ann Arbor Huron High School, where the Bucs will take on Ann Arbor Skyline in the first round. A win there would likely pit the Bucs against the Rams Saturday morning.
“Where we are sitting, we have to go through Rockford now to get where we want to go,” Hamm said. “They are unbeaten so far, but not unbeatable. We just have to remember how to play intense for all 28 minutes, not the last 14.”