Grand Haven (12-9-3) entered the match riding a four-game streak in which the Bucs had outscored their opponents 13-0, and in the first half on Saturday, they rode a suffocating defensive effort and stellar goalkeeping to keep that shutout streak intact.
Try as East Kentwood might, the Falcons could not find a way to break through the Bucs’ back line. Every cross caromed off a defender’s leg, every shot blocked by a boot or gobbled up by the goalie.
“East Kentwood was exactly what we expected,” Grand Haven coach Aaron Dean said. “They were strong on the ball and had great passing. We were well organized, though, and did enough defensively in the first half to not let them get great opportunities in our end.”
The Bucs played well out of the back, absorbing Kentwood’s attack and building some momentum through the counter. That paid off near the end of the first half, when a Falcon defender was whistled for a handball just off the corner of the 18-yard box. Bucs’ captain Kevin LaCroix lasered a shot that beat East Kentwood’s keeper low and to the near post, sending Grand Haven to the locker room with a 1-0 lead.
“Our mindset going into the game was that we had played a great tournament so far, allowing no goals,” Corey Vanderlaan, the Bucs’ goalkeeper, said. ”And after going into the half with a lead, we thought we could keep that going.”
“This was a big game for us,” Grand Haven midfielder Gerrit Schaap said. ”We lost to EK twice (during the regular season), but we played them close and we believed we could win. We knew they’d put a lot of pressure on us coming out of halftime.”
East Kentwood wasted little time asserting its offensive might in the second half, scoring off a loose ball close in to the Bucs’ goal 70 seconds in, and again three minutes later.
“The way Grand Haven’s defense and goalie were playing, we knew we had to create second chances and just keep after the ball,” East Kentwood coach John Conlon said. “It was very hard for our guys to get the first shot clear, but we finally got the breaks we needed in the second half.”
The Falcons added a third tally with 28 minutes left that seemed to galvanize the Bucs.
“We were fired up and loving the opportunity to go against the No. 1 team in the regional final,” LaCroix said. “When we went down 3-1, it just made us work that much harder. It would have killed us to not leave it all on the field.”
Grand Haven created a couple good scoring opportunities in the ensuing minutes, with Jon Buitenhuis narrowly missing a volleyed shot. But East Kentwood iced the game with a penalty kick with six minutes remaining.
After a season of valleys and peaks for this edition of the Grand Haven soccer squad, Dean said this was an especially fun group to manage.
“This group had all sorts of expectations (following last year’s run to the state finals),” Dean said. ”We did well, then faltered. The guys realized there would be a steeper learning curve this year. Even when we weren’t getting results, they stuck together.
“That’s what I’m most proud of. The things they did on the practice field; the things they did in the locker room; those things that nobody else sees.”
Those unseen things did catch the attention of some, though.
“This Grand Haven team and the way they finished and got back to the regional final was as impressive as anything I’ve seen,” Conlon said.
- By Ben Buursma, Tribune Correspondent