VanArendonk, a 2010 Grand Haven High School graduate, played in his third installment of the storied rivalry on Wednesday night, scoring six points to help the host Flying Dutchmen hold off the Knights of Calvin, 87-80.
“It’s fun. The closest thing I can compare it to is Grand Haven-Rockford or Grand Haven-West Ottawa, but this is beyond that,” VanArendonk said. “You prepare the same way, but there are so many intangibles.”
Wednesday’s showdown was a prime example. Hope looked to have the game wrapped up with a 15-point lead and under 3 minutes remaining on the clock, but Calvin battled back, clawing to within six points in the closing minute.
Hope made just enough free throws down the stretch to hold on for the victory — the Flying Dutchmen’s third win over the Knights this season. This victory came in the semifinal round of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament and sent No. 1-ranked Hope on to Saturday’s title game.
“We play teams, we get a lead like that, we finish it,” said the 6-foot-10 VanArendonk, who starts at center for Hope. “But Calvin, we get ahead and they don’t give up. They played great tonight.”
VanArendonk provided a spark for his team, especially in the opening half. First, following a Hope offensive rebound, VanArendonk elevated above his defender and threw down a one-handed dunk, sending the orange-clad Dew Crew (Hope’s student section) into hysterics.
It’s that wild atmosphere that makes Hope such a special place for VanArendonk, who started his college career at Central Michigan University.
“Things have gone so smoothly, and it’s been a great experience,” VanArendonk said. “Everyone knows you here. Everyone in the Dew Crew, I see them in class every day. CMU was fun, but this feels more like home.”
Basketball certainly rules at Hope, where the entire community comes out to support the team each night. Wednesday’s win was the eighth sellout of the season.
“I loved the Green Men at Grand Haven, but these guys just bleed orange and blue,” VanArendonk said. “It’s crazy.”
VanArendonk’s choice to transfer from Central to Hope thrilled Flying Dutchmen coach Matt Neil.
“VA (Nate) brings a great spirit to our team,” said Neil, now in his second year as Hope’s head coach. He boasts an impressive 48-8 career record. “He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s really fun to have on the team.”
Neil recruited VanArendonk out of high school and was sorely disappointed when the former Buccaneer headed north to Mt. Pleasant.
“We recruited him very hard, and being a teammate of his dad (Craig), I hoped to get him here,” Neil said. “But I told him that the door would always swing open. Then his dad called me this year and told me he wanted to make the switch, and that was a great phone call to take.”
VanArendonk had to overcome some hurdles when moving from Central to Hope. The Division 1 game is much more physical than at Division 3, and getting used to that level of play took some time.
“We like to play physical, but he was getting into foul trouble quite a bit,” Neil said. “But he’s grown into the heart of our coaches and players.”
Helping make the transition to Hope easier is the fact that VanArendonk joined a Hope team with plenty of veteran leadership — and veteran talent. That has allowed VanArendonk to come in and play under the radar at Hope rather than being the focal point of his team’s offensive or defensive game plan.
“That’s the opportunity on a very good team,” Neil said. “Nate forces people to pay attention to him, and that’s allowed (Nate) Snuggerud to have a very good season.
“We’re not looking for Nate to be our leading scorer, but he’s had some very good games himself.”
Heading into Wednesday’s contest, VanArendonk was averaging 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. His 44 blocks leads the team, as does his .614 field-goal percentage (among players in the team’s regular rotation).
He’s also accumulated 43 assists and committed a team-high 74 fouls.
The Flying Dutchmen (24-1) will host Adrian (17-8) at 3 p.m. in Saturday’s MIAA title game.
With a win, Hope will likely receive home games in the first several rounds of the NCAA Division III national tournament, which begins next week. The Selection Show for the D-III tournament takes place Monday at noon.