GRAND HAVEN TWP. — The Grand Haven girls lacrosse program has never been one to back down from a challenge.
A loaded scheduled with top-ranked opponents? Sure.
A game against the boys' varsity team? Bring it on.
Now, the Buccaneers are ready to pool together every ounce of tenacity and feistiness in their bones to take on the biggest bully on the block — the Rockford Rams.
For the past five years, the Rockford girls lacrosse program has cast an enormous shadow over the entire Division 1 field, as the Rams have won five straight state championships and six of the last eight.
The Rams have personally ended Grand Haven's season the past three springs, but a new playoff seeding and a new attitude have spawned new hope in the hearts and minds of the Buccaneers.
"I'm fairly certain that over in Rockford, when they give birth, they use a lacrosse goalie stick to get the child out," joked Grand Haven girls head coach Mark Robertson. "That's the culture over there, and we're trying to change our culture over here a little bit.
"We knew we would have a solid team this year, but the girls have really stepped it up from those expectations. We've had solid defense and goaltending and our offense can be a little streaky at times, but it can be really impressive when they are on. It's just a matter of putting everything together.
"The bottom line is, we work hard, and I have to put the screws to them every once and while, but they always respond, and we end up getting better. That's really the whole point."
The contingent of Grand Haven seniors on the roster have faith that their team-oriented attack could help them make history.
"We all make each other better and it's not really just one or two star players on the team," said senior goalie Taylor Hylok. "It's really a whole team made of good players."
"To go further in the playoffs would be great," added senior Jerica Tallman. "We usually don't get past the second game because we always run into Rockford. This year, we wouldn't see them until the quarterfinals, so that would be awesome if we could win a few games."
"We want to be the first team to make it past the second round and make school history," said senior Christina Byrne.
Senioritis can be an epidemic once the calendar turns to May, which can create a whole new set of problems for spring sports coaches. This year's Grand Haven girls lacrosse team doesn't seem to fit the bill, however.
"The spring season can be kind of tough, especially when you have seniors on the team," added Robertson. "It's natural for these kids to start thinking about other things once school is winding down. I've coached in the fall, but there's nothing quite as challenging as keeping kids' attention late in the spring.
"This particular group has been really solid, though. A few years ago, it was a lot worse, but this year, they are really dialed in. They really are the key to our success. They are familiar with what it takes to be successful, they know our system better than anybody, and most importantly, they want to win."
In order to usher in a new conference realignment, Robertson and the Buccaneers decided to up the ante and take on any and all challengers on their schedule this season.
The result has been a 6-7 overall record, but it has also meant a steady level of improvement that has made the team better in the long run and more confident in themselves than ever before.
"With the new realignment, we are in a much more difficult conference," said Robertson. "Not only that, but we have played a real bear of a schedule this spring. We used to play a bunch of teams in our conference that weren't ranked very well. So, we'd play a tough game, but then we would play two or three games against brand-new programs. In those games, we'd have some occasions where the other team wouldn't even get the ball across midfield until the final minutes of the game. That doesn't get you any better as a team, so we just don't do that anymore.
"We play teams like Mattawan, Portage (Northern) and Forest Hills United, not to mention teams like Grand Rapids Christian and Spring Lake twice. Then you have teams like West Ottawa and Lowell, who are constantly getting better. So, there's really no breaks in our schedule, but that's a good thing.
"It's a crunch when you're in it, but if we want to get better, that's how we have to schedule."
The Grand Haven girls lacrosse program has been improving with each season and stacking successes on top of each other. Now, the program wants to take the next step toward creating championship habits.
"I think we built the foundation a few years ago, and then we started to win more and kept building from there," said Robertson. "That, in turn, has helped build our youth program, which has started to feed into our middle school program, and it's slowly started building up from there.
"The problem is that we still only get two or three kids per grade to stick with it from those early development stages. If we can get a few more kids to try it out and stick with it, that's when you see the biggest steps and can quickly become a contending program."
With a gluttony of spring sports available to high school athletes, however, attrition is difficult to avoid.
"There's also a lot of sports to play in the spring, whether it's soccer, softball or track," added Robertson. "It's a crowded season and everyone is trying to find athletes to play. We had 95 kids come out this year, which are pretty good numbers. With so many kids on the roster, our hope is that kids don't get disgruntled when they don't play early on. We want them to let that motivate them to get better for next year.
"That's the type of culture we are trying to create and this group has really accepted that challenge and ran with it. These girls are tough. They are mentally and physically strong. They never give up on a game. Even against the boys' team Wednesday, they battled back from a two-goal deficit and forced overtime.
"They aren't afraid to take a swing or two, and I like that. I like a little feistiness from my teams, and I think they will enter the postseason more confident than they've ever been and they won't be intimidated by anyone."
A long playoff run would make this year's squad the first to do so, which is something their coach has embraced.
"That's what we play for," Robertson continued. "That's what all this hard work is for. They want to make a long playoff run, and I would love to go deep into the postseason. It would mean the world to me if we could just push a little bit deeper into the playoffs every couple of seasons, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to do that this year.
"It's difficult over here because most of the best teams in the state are in our own backyard. Spring Lake has to deal with Grand Rapids Christian and East Grand Rapids every postseason, and we have to take on Forest Hills United and Rockford.
"It'll never be an easy road, but we know one breakthrough season could create a lot of positive momentum for the entire operation."
PICKING UP THE STICKS
For a lot of players on the varsity team, the choice to play lacrosse was one spurred by friendship.
"I taught a lot of my friends about lacrosse when we were younger," said Tallman. "A lot of my friends decided to try it out in high school and stuck with it."
"It's a lot of fun to play, and it's a great team sport," added Hylok. "The adrenaline rush you get from playing competitive lacrosse is my favorite part."
"The best part is that we've all grown really close because we've known each other for years and now, we're all playing on the same team together," added Dewald, who will be joining Hylok in playing college lacrosse at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa, next season.
Regardless of the final standings, this year's Grand Haven girls lacrosse team feels like they have extended the reach of lacrosse at Grand Haven and will hopefully foster future growth in the program.
"I think we've really helped get the elementary school kids more interested in playing lacrosse, because we've worked a lot with them over the years," said Byrne.
"Now, those kids will grow up wanting to play lacrosse, and they'll make future teams even better," added Tallman.
Team Comedian: Karen Gonella
Team Mom: Micala Carpenter
Best Friends: Amaya Dewald and Taylor Hylok
Most Likely to Be Late: Christina Byrne
Most Gullible: Katie Webster
Most Likely to Fall: Jerica Tallman
Worst Driver: Emalee Childs
Most Bossy: Isabel Andrini
Hardest Shot: Chelsea Sportell