The Grand Haven water polo team took home fifth place from this weekend’s state championship tournament after finishing 2-1 over the two-day affair.
The Bucs picked the wrong game to falter, as their lone loss came in the opening round of the tournament to Ann Arbor Skyline on Friday night, relegating them to Saturday’s consolation bracket. There they rolled Birmingham Seaholm and Jenison en route to their bracket victory for a fifth-place finish.
“It is awfully nice to be able to walk away and know we belong just that close to the championship bracket,” Grand Haven head coach Bill Hamm said. “But it still leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, knowing how close we were.
“It is a long weekend. It is tough to come back and be an athlete twice in one day after a tough game Friday night. They kept their competitive spirit and played with serious determination when they had to. I was proud of that.”
After losing to Hudsonville by one goal in the regional semifinals the Bucs came into the tournament holding the West region three-seed, meeting up with Ann Arbor Skyline and a high-powered offense Friday night.
The Bucs got off to a good start, but had a tough time employing their typical lockdown defense on a talented Skyline lineup. They trailed 5-3 after the first quarter and were outscored 5-0 in the second. A 4-3 third quarter kept Grand Haven in the game, but an even 3-3 final period brought on the final score of 16-9.
“It was competitive throughout,” Hamm said. “They were always one or two goals ahead of us. We came out gangbusters in the third with three quick goals. They called timeout and our guys couldn’t keep up the energy and they answered with three straight goals.
“They have a very talented player who we were putting our best guys on, and he was outplaying our best guys, and doing a great job leading his teammates. He got to play his game all four quarters. That affects your stars, it took away the confidence from guys who typically play with all the confidence.”
Mason Fritz and Grant Ruster were able to find their game eventually, each netting four goals. Reilly Wisniewski rounded out the Bucs offense with their ninth goal.
The loss sent the Bucs to the consolation bracket for Saturday with a bad taste in their mouth. Saturday brought the chance for a reboot for Grand Haven, facing a new bracket.
“It is just a hair’s breath away. If we had handled Hudsonville at the regional we would have had a different matchup in the first round, and on any given day any team can win.” Hamm said. “Saturday, we faced a brand new championship tournament. Not the one we wanted to be in, but still a good one to be at. The guys were focused and fired up, ready to start anew.”
The Bucs took on Birmingham Seaholm bright and early Saturday morning with opening sprint at 9:15 a.m. Grand Haven proved they were awake alive alert and enthusiastic, jumping out to a 5-2 lead in the first quarter with all five scores courtesy of Fritz.
Ruster got involved early in the second, as Fritz nabbed a steal at midpool and hit him with a long-range assist. Ruster returned the favor, drawing a six-on-five for Fritz to convert a minute later.
Nick Wilson would score a transition goal under duress to round out the Bucs’ first half; Seaholms’ only goal of the quarter would come as the buzzer sounded. The second half was more of the same, Fritz added two goals while Ruster added one in the third quarter and Peter Clark finished things off with a goal in the fourth, bringing the game to its final tally of 14-8.
“Emotions can get the better of you quickly in this sport, so to come back in the morning after a tough loss Friday night is admirable,” Hamm said. “They put their emotions in check and came out and played really well.”
The victory placed the Bucs in the consolation finals taking on a familiar opponent, the west regional fourth seed, Jenison, providing compelling theater and a little fun for the final game of the season.
The Wildcats got out to a 3-0 lead before the Bucs got comfortable. With 33 seconds left in the first quarter, Ruster drew an exclusion, giving the Bucs a 6 on 5 opportunity. Joshua Koornneef converted from outside to get the Bucs on the board.
With nine seconds left, Fritz nabbed a steal in Grand Haven’s defensive zone and took off down the pool, receiving the ball on the way and finishing the play with a score.
Ruster would net two goals, both on power plays, in the second to give the Bucs a 4-3 lead at halftime. Fritz, Koornneef and Eli Vandenbrand found the net in the third to put Grand Haven in the driver’s seat.
With 1:35 left to play, the Bucs found their lead shrinking as Jenison had outscored them 2-1 in the quarter and seized momentum. A timeout by Hamm settled the Bucs down, who finished off the game with goals from Ethan Ball, Koornneef and Fritz for a 10-8 victory.
“Heart,” Hamm said was the difference for the Bucs’ Saturday run. “Just continuing to plug away. A six-hour break between games is tough. These kids know how to settle down and how intense and physical the game to be and they never shy away from that.
“Fifth place still leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but it is pleasing to know you played well enough to win your tournament, even though the tournament was bigger than that.”
The top-five finish marks a one-place improvement from last season, as the Bucs say goodbye to a special class of players who loved their teammates and the game like few do.
“I was expecting to be more sad,” Fritz said of the end of the season. “It was really more fun. I realized how much fun I have had with these guys and what each of them means to me.”
“It was a great game to end it on,” Beals said. “It was a lot of fun and a well-played game. I don’t think I would want it end it any other way.”
“They are a special class,” Hamm said of this years’ seniors. “They are classy guys, they are really good friends and they love each other. They are going to be missed by a coach that hasn’t known them all that long and they are going to be missed by a community that has been watching them since they were eight and nine. It is a great group of young men and I am proud to have been part of their learning and am excited to see what they accomplish down the road.”