If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that the Grand Haven boys basketball team won a share of the O-K Red Conference last season, and are primed for a postseason run this March, as they hold a 14-4 record late in the regular season.
The backbone of the Grand Haven squad this season is its strong senior leadership with four-year varsity starter Ross Koella and three-year starter Zac Holman often atop the stat sheet. The team also relies on the contributions of fellow seniors Clay Landsman, Drew Van Andel and Jeff VanDalen to help guide a Buccaneers squad that has an interesting influx of upper- and underclassmen.
But that leadership didn’t start this November; it was actually formed in the classrooms and gyms at Peach Plains Elementary School.
“Me and Ross go way back, all the way to young fives (pre-kindergarten),” said Clay Landsman. “We’ve known each other for so long that it’s just a connection we have, it’s like a bond. We’re like family.
“Zac came to Peach a little later on, but we’ve been playing AYBT (summer league) together since the summer of fourth grade. It’s all a big family, and we all get along really well.”
Landsman, who will attend the University of Central Florida to pursue a degree in business and photography this fall, believes the chemistry is productive to winning.
“When you’ve been playing YMCA ball together since you were 5 years old, it makes everything easier. It makes practices more enjoyable, and it makes everyone better when it’s a family atmosphere like that.”
The other member of the Buccaneer fab five that didn’t play basketball in elementary school was Drew Van Andel, but that hasn’t affected the togetherness of the group.
“Drew (Van Andel) is probably the only kid I didn’t know that well back then,” said Ross Koella. “Jeff, Zac, Clay and I have all been playing together since second or third grade.
“I hadn’t played with Drew until last year pretty much, because he was never on the same travel teams. He wasn’t really that into basketball until high school. He was kind of late bloomer, as far as basketball, but we’ve always been a tight-knit group.”
That bond has helped all five players improve over the course of the their high school careers at Grand Haven.
“It helps a lot, because we just know each other’s style of play already,” Koella added. “That helps that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses out there. I know how to help them play better, and they know how to help me play better. We don’t have to say much to each other out there.”
Koella, who’s uncommitted at this point in the recruiting process, but plans to play college hoops next fall, believes the friendships formed by the senior class has served this year’s edition of the varsity squad well.
“Last year, we probably had more chemistry at the very start, because this group of seniors had played with the senior class above us like Drew (Hewitt), Zach (Sinke) and Jason (Long) for a few years with travel-league teams.
“Coming into this year, I had never played with any of the younger guys. So that was a much different dynamic when you’re coming into the season with a new group of young guys like that. I think the seniors really had to step up in terms of leadership this year, but we’re gelling pretty well at this point, so it’s all working out.”
One player who has taken over that leadership role is Zac Holman. Like his senior teammates, Holman views his class as more of a family than a group of classmates or teammates.
“They mean so much to me,” Holman said of his senior teammates. “We have been together for so long, and we have such a tight bond. It really helps on the court when everyone is comfortable playing within their roles, and it makes the entire team better.
“It will be sad playing one last game at home with all the guys you have grown up with. Some of my favorite moments growing up were traveling the state playing AAU basketball together and really becoming close friends through that process.”
Another highlight for the seniors goes back to seventh grade, when the group established themselves with some winning tradition.
“We went undefeated in seventh grade at White Pines Middle School,” said Jeff VanDalen. “That was one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever had. I think everyone but Drew was on that team.”
VanDalen, who will be attending Western Michigan University next fall and pursuing a business degree, has relished his role as an emotional leader on the team.
“My job is just try and get people excited for the game,” he said. “Last year, we had a pretty good bench. We just want to get the other guys amped up for the game and get the crowd into it. We just want to play the best.
“We were pretty tight with last year’s group of seniors, but team chemistry is pretty great this year, too. That’s never really been a problem for us. Everyone likes each other and there’s no egos.”
Complacency has never been a problem for the group, as their tight-knit bonds have resulted in open and honest communication.
“It helps a lot, especially when one of us is having a bad game,” said Drew Van Andel. “The other guys are always there to pick them up and not be afraid to offer up some constructive criticism. On some teams, there might be some timidness there, but that’s not the case here.”
Van Andel, who will be attending Calvin College to play soccer, has grown rapidly as a basketball player in the past two seasons. Van Andel credits second-year head coach Greg Immink for creating a positive environment for him to blossom into the player he is today.
“For me, as a player, I think coach Immink has done a great job of helping me grow my individual game,” he added. “He’s always been positive and encouraging. I think that really helps as a player to have somebody to guide you along the way.
“Basketball is just a break from soccer for me. I’ve played so much soccer since I was little that it’s nice to have a segment of the year where I do something else. There’s something satisfying about putting a ball in the hoop.”
The Buccaneers have seen plenty of their shots go through the net this season, but that wasn’t without some hard work during the offseason.
“It’s been an awesome group to coach,” said Grand Haven head coach Greg Immink. “These guys are really committed to the program and to basketball, and I’m thankful for all the hard work that they’ve put in to Grand Haven basketball.
“They are the guys that are carrying the torch right now, and I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to do that for the program. It’s a different team than last year, and each team has it’s own identity, but I’m proud of how each group has continued to do things the right way and hard work out there.”
In a limited timespan, Immink has established a championship-or-bust type culture around the Grand Haven program, which he believes is only made possible due to the senior leadership.
“I’m really happy with where we are at as a program, and I think a lot of that is a credit to this group of seniors and what they have given to the program and the example they’ve set,” he added.
“One of the real advantages of this team is that we’ve got a lot of competitive guys and a lot of talented guys. It’s a big roster and practices are a fight. The guys like to get after each other out there, regardless of class, and it’s just been a key part in our success.”
The Buccaneers host Grandville on Friday night, followed by their final game of the regular season against Forest Hills Central on Tuesday. The team will then quickly switch gears to the postseason, where everyone starts from scratch.
“The tournament is a fresh start for everybody, and it’ a new chance to try and accomplish something special,” Immink said. “We know it isn’t going to be easy by any means. Our district is good, so we’ll see what happens.
“We just have to keep playing hard and hopefully the chips will fall in our favor.”