“I figured there were probably 10-15 teams that could contend for a state championship. There was that kind of balance this season,” Smaka said.
Smaka considered his Buccaneers’ squad a part of that group and so far, he hasn’t been disappointed.
“There was obviously no guarantee that we could be in position to be one of the best teams in the state, but I’ve said it for awhile now that if we play our best, we can play with anybody in the state,” Smaka said.
Grand Haven captured the program’s first-ever Class A regional championship on Thursday and will travel to Coopersville High School on Tuesday to battle Grand Rapids Christian. The match begins at 6:30 p.m., with the winner earning a trip to Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek — the host of the state semifinals and finals.
The field in Class A has been whittled down to eight, with No. 8 Grand Haven and No. 3 Macomb Dakota being the only two remaining state-ranked teams in the quarterfinal round.
Smaka realizes at this point, state rankings can be thrown out the window.
“We realize if we don’t play our best Tuesday, Grand Rapids Christian is a good enough team to beat us,” he said.
The Eagles proved that in their regional final match, as they stunned No. 1-ranked Gull Lake in a thrilling five-game match. Christian (40-10 overall) is coached by Tiffanie Gates, who guided East Grand Rapids to the Class B state semifinals two years ago. This season, she’s had the chance to coach her daughter, Taylor, who is a senior setter for the Eagles.
Smaka said the Eagles consistently rely on their talented outside hitters to key their offense, with sophomore Kristin Danielson being the biggest threat. Six-foot middle hitter Kelly Bos also had a big match in the upset of Gull Lake.
“They really pound it from the outside and they really don’t make many mistakes,” Smaka said. “They’re a very good defensive team and they’ll keep pounding the ball at teams until they make a mistake.”
Smaka feels the Buccaneers have an advantage with 6-5 senior Abby Cole being a disruptive force in the middle, while the team’s blocking and overall defense has improved since the team’s last met on Oct. 20. In that match, the Eagles prevailed in a 2-1 result at Grand Haven High School.
“I think our blocking is one of our strengths and we’ll use that as much as we can to slow them down,” Smaka said. “But we also have to have some unbelievable defense behind that blocking.
“They know they have an advantage from already beating us, but I think our girls believe they’re playing much better than we did back then.”
Smaka said one of the keys has been an improved effort on defense, which he compared to a basketball mentality — playing team defense.
“A lot of (the improvement) boils down to our experience, but I also believe they now realize how big an impact our defense can have,” he said. “They learned how to play team defense, not relying on one person to make a play. You hear that in basketball, and in this case, it’s the entire team playing the ball. When you do that, instead of a missed opportunity, maybe now you can get a touch and turn it into a potential point.”