“For the seniors, we wanted to win this one so bad,” said senior libero Andrea Smith.
Smith was joined by fellow seniors Lauren Hamberg, Marisa Ejups, Stephanie Sedgewick, and arguably one of the most dominating players in program history, Abby Cole.
Cole, a 6-foot-5 middle hitter who will play at the University of Michigan next season, had tears in her eyes as the last player introduced before an impressive home crowd. By the end of the evening, she was all smiles, as she pounded the Panthers with 24 kills and eight blocks in the Bucs’ four-game victory, 25-10, 23-25, 25-14 and 25-22.
The victory keeps Grand Haven on top of the O-K Red Conference at 3-0, while also improving their overall record to 23-11-1.
“I was crying, too,” Smith said of the ceremony. “It was emotional for all of us. Except Marisa, we’ve been playing with each other since I think middle school. This group is just so close and we love being around each other. We have so many inside jokes and really, it’s like another family when we’re together.”
Grand Haven had one stretch where they lacked communication and were mired in slugglish play defensively in their second game against the Panthers, but they took care of business the rest of the match.
Grand Haven varsity volleyball coach Aaron Smaka calls it communicating as a single unit, or in other words, helping one another remain a step ahead of the competition at all times.
When those skills are flowing well on the court for the Bucs, they’re one tough team to defeat. For whatever reason, they still haven’t accomplished it at a consistent level, but they’re getting close.
Grand Haven could have been singing “We Are Family,” throughout Game 1, as the Bucs came out on fire. Hamberg tallied 10-straight service points to open the match and the Panthers never recovered. The 10-point surge was keyed by great blocking, including a stretch of two Cole solo blocks and a double with Cole and Ejups.
“It’s so fun playing next to Abby because she gets so excited and she gets up on everyone, trying to get them pumped up,” said Ejups, a transfer student from New York.
Ejups totaled nine kills Thursday and has elevated her game lately to give the Bucs another feared weapon at the net, along with Cole, Sedgewick, and junior Krysteena Davis.
“With the hitters we’ve got, we have the potential to be unstoppable,” the 6-1 Ejups said.
The sophomore-dominated Panthers showed their grit in Game 2, as they rallied back from a 17-15 deficit, then built its largest lead of 24-20 as they took advantage of a hitting error and two Bucs’ blocks out of bounds.
“I think in the second and third games, we were reacting to them and we weren’t being aggressive,” Smaka said. “We were being assertive and we weren’t attacking and forcing the action. Because of that, we fell a step behind. Sometimes you have nights like that, but fortunately we were able to pull through.”
West Ottawa served tough throughout with a total of 10 aces, but the Bucs’ serve receive and passing improved greatly in Game 3, which allowed setter Jami Hogeboom to run the team’s offense at a head-spinning rate. She also asserted herself offensively, with a nice quick tip for a point, and an ensuing cross-court kill to give her team a 17-9 advantage. Hogeboom had 47 assists and a team-high three aces.
The Bucs could never gain a comfort level in the clinching Game 4. West Ottawa closed to within 20-19 on a kill, but the Bucs’ resiliency shined through as they never relinquished the lead.
Fittingly, Cole closed out the match, not with one of her most powerful kills, but on an angled hit that gave the Panthers’ blockers no chance.
Smith, who led the Bucs with 27 digs, said Grand Haven has improved greatly since mid-season due to intense practices and more disciplined blocking. Once they get the lapses in communication figured out, watch out.
“We’ve got to communicate and keep moving our feet,” she said. “Every match from here on out, we’ve got to keep fighting and do our best.”
There’s plenty of key matches in the O-K Red to go, but Smaka obviously likes where the Bucs are at right now.
“It would be huge (to win conference). A lot of fun for this program,” he said. “Every year, that’s one of our goals. And to see all the state titles that have been won in our conference – which I think is the best all-around conference in the state – if you can come out on top, it puts you in a good position for a potential postseason run.”
Junior Varsity: Grand Haven improved its record to 21-10 on Thursday following a 25-19, 23-25, 15-13 win over West Ottawa. Katja Mestrom, Rachel Sedgewick and Paige Holman each had six kills for the Bucs. Emily Lachmann totaled 11 service points, and Sophie Stoepker tallied 22 assists.
Freshmen: Grand Haven suffered a tough two-gmae loss to West Ottawa. Hanna Rinkevicz finished with five kills, two blocks and nine digs, while Faithann Harp added two kills and four digs. Erin Miller added 16 digs, and Olivia Buikema had 14 assists and five digs for the Bucs.