A pair of games against No. 2-ranked Rockford.
A contest against Spring Lake, a neighborhood rival who happens to be ranked No. 1 in Division 2.
Showdowns with Hudsonville Unity Christian and Reeths-Puffer.
What do all of these games have in common?
They were all highly-anticipated tests for the Grand Haven varsity soccer team.
And the Buccaneers lost them all.
A year after making the deepest tournament run in school history before losing in the Division 1 state finals, the Buccaneers entered 2012 with sky-high expectations.
In reality, those expectations should have been tempered. Seven of last year’s 11 starters are now playing college soccer. Gone is an all-state goalie and a pair of all-state forwards, not to mention key players at several other positions.
To expect another state championship caliber season out of the Buccaneers was simply unreasonable.
Yet here they are, with the regional tournament about to begin on Wednesday, and the Bucs are still alive — one of the top 16 teams remaining in the Division 1 state tournament — much to the surprise of many people outside the program.
It’s not a surprise to the Bucs.
“We knew it was going to happen,” said senior Kevin Lacroix, who helped guide the Bucs to three straight impressive district tournament wins last week, including a victory over an outstanding Mona Shores team in Saturday’s district final.
“We were confident we were going to do it. We didn’t feel like the underdog, even though everyone else felt we were,” Lacroix said.
What led to this confidence?
“Just the work rate at practice, and everyone starting to understand that everything’s starting to click,” Lacroix said. “We’re starting to realize that if we come out and play, we can play with anyone in the state.”
Playing with top teams hasn’t been an issue for the Bucs. Beating them has been another story.
“It was extremely frustrating at times,” Lacroix said. “The guys who were on the team last, it was difficult for us to lose the close games instead of winning them. Coach (Aaron) Dean told us at the beginning of the season that we were going to have to lose some of those games. It was going to take us a little longer to find the pieces. He was right. Now, we’re clicking.”
The journey from conditioning and tryouts back in August to winning the district title on Saturday was a long and difficult one for the Bucs. Dean, who has coached the Buccaneers’ varsity boys for close to a decade, tried out several different lineups, shuffling players from one position to the next in an attempt to figure out which puzzle pieces fit together the best.
It’s taken the emergence of a few key juniors to really put the team in a position to make a tournament run.
Players such as Zach Thomas and Kennedy Kaufman, both juniors, were little-known newcomers early in the year. Now they’re rock-solid contributors on defense.
Their addition to the Bucs’ back line, alongside season-long staples Kaan Ozadali and Nick Kline, allowed the Bucs to move out of the defense and into a more offensive position. That move has jump-started Grand Haven’s attack, which was sputtering early in the season.
Goalie Corey Vanderlaan is thrilled to see his team putting balls away on offense, which in turn takes some of the pressure off him.
“When we started out the season, we had one of our best players back there in Kevin Lacroix,” Vanderlaan said. “We moved him up to the midfield because Zach Thomas started playing big, and Kevin has created a lot more chances. Everyone’s been stepping it up.”
Grand Haven had scored just 13 goals in their first 14 games. Then came an Oct. 8 contest against Hudsonville. Granted, the Eagles didn’t win a league game all year. Still, what happened at Buccaneer Stadium against the Eagles — six goals by the Bucs, including a hat trick by Lacroix — may have been the spark that ignited Grand Haven.
After that game, the Bucs suffered a tight loss to Rockford, then turned around and outscored Grandville, Hudsonville and Mona Shores by a combined 11-0 margin in the district tournament.
“That second Hudsonville game was big because we hadn’t been scoring at all, and that got our confidence way up, knowing that we can score,” Vanderlaan said. “That was the turning point of our season.”
“The last time I had a hat trick was probably during indoor soccer sometime, but I never had a hat trick at a high level, especially on varsity,” Lacroix said. “I was pretty comfortable playing (defense), but I felt like I helped the team out a little more because I’m able to get into the attack.”
Getting a boost on offense without giving anything up on the defensive end has allowed the Buccaneers to win those games that they were losing earlier in the year.
It’s a welcomed change of pace for senior midfielder Willie Bennick.
“Every time we’ve played a good team, we haven’t been able to get the victory we wanted,” Bennick said. “This (win over Mona Shores) is the first time all year we’ve got a victory against a really good team.”
It was Bennick who put away that early score, and he hopes to keep up that scoring touch in the regional tournament, which begins with a showdown against Portage Central on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Holt.
Grand Haven actually faced off against Portage Central earlier this year, when both teams competed in the season-opening Portage Invitational. Games were shortened and teams were just coming off tryouts, but still, Bennick remembers a few things about that meeting — a win by the Bucs.
“It’s hard to take anything from that game,” he said. “We’ve grown a lot as a team, and we know they’ve grown a lot as a team.
“On that given day, we didn’t think they were that great of a team, but from the first day of the season to possibly the last day off the season, things change drastically in that time frame.”