The Buccaneers came into the season as O-K Red Conference title contenders, but with Rockford holding a vice grip on the league trophy for the past 25 years, few outside the program thought the goal was actually achievable.
“We thought we had a great chance to win the O-K Red and an outside chance to win the regional,” said Grand Haven head coach John Tarr. “However, I told the guys that in the past, we had this kind of potential only to fall short because some guys didn’t put in the summer work. So, our goal last summer was to come into the season running 45 miles a week, and they did. This allowed us to get an early start on some harder workouts at the onset of the season.
“Every year, I tell the guys that our goal is to qualify for the MHSAA team state meet. Anything less is a failure. At our team meeting last June, I showed the boys a hypothetical look at the O-K Red and told them that on paper, we could win the conference championship, but that it was going to take a total team effort from 10 guys, because Rockford had the best runner in the state (Cole Johnson) and Hudsonville had a very good young team.”
Despite the stacked deck, Grand Haven jumped out to an early lead in the conference race, winning a Sept. 19 league meet at their home course. The win gave the Buccaneers their first win over Rockford since 2010 and had the group believing that a conference championship was more than just a wild dream.
“When we won that first jamboree, I said to our assistant coach Will Hewitt, ‘Holy crap! This is amazing! We really can do this. But now the pressure is on, and we can’t screw this up.’ I mean if you beat Rockford then something special is happening. So, the goal quickly became to stay focused, pay attention to each kid, make sure as a coach that every workout is right, that every race has a goal and the entire team is steered toward the prize. So, we looked at workouts as they were placed around meets, and I adjusted them so the guys weren’t too tired. They stayed fresh because of that, and I think that helped a lot.”
The Bucs had a wake-up call at their second league jamboree, finishing third overall with some uncharacteristic times put up by several runners. It was in that moment that the team turned the tide on their season.
“I really feel like the breakthrough meet for us this year was when we finished third in the second O-K Red Conference jamboree after winning the first one,” added Tarr. “We had a couple guys run bad races and a few guys who didn’t step up for them. I challenged them the following week to run more like a team and that if they saw a guy running out place, they had to pick it up for that guy.
“I think this gave them a sense of urgency and an awareness of the entire race and their team rather than simply running as individuals. After that meet, we got tougher and ran harder and pushed each other more.
“After our failure in the second jamboree, Jack Nicholson, Aidan Martin and Andrew Ireland became very vocal at practice. Those guys established an atmosphere of focus and seriousness that caught fire with the team. Suddenly, Kyle Eveland and Nathan Wolfiss were speaking up and guys responded, even the freshmen boys got involved.”
Grand Haven would add some solid performances in non-league action to build up to a decisive Oct. 19 race, which marked the Buccaneers final shot at dethroning the Rams.
The Bucs answered the challenge, scoring 52 points at the event to edge Rockford by a single point and capture the program’s first conference title since sharing it with Rockford in 2010. It was also the first time Rockford had not won or at least shared the O-K Red Championship in 25 years.
The meet was literally won by inches.
Senior Jack Nicholson led the way with a third-place finish in 15:54.7, securing him All-Conference honors for the fourth time in his career. Andrew Ireland followed in seventh place, leaning over the finish line to take an eyeball win over a West Ottawa runner, finishing with the same time at 16:29.8.
Aidan Martin took 10th place with a time of 16:34.6, while Dominic Weatherwax came in for a contested 12th place at 16:43.2, staging a spectacular finish, by lunging over the line to beat two Hudsonville runners by one-tenth of a second.
Cole Rowden took 20th place, beating out the 21st finisher by under half a second, while Kyle Eveland finished 23rd, edging Rockford’s No. 5 runner by one place, securing the one-point victory.
Ireland, Martin, Rowden and Weatherwax also secured All-Conference honors, making it the most in a season in Grand Haven history.
“It was amazing. Our guys were literally throwing themselves over the finishing line at the end to get ahead of the Rockford runners,” said Tarr. “Ireland pushed himself over the edge, and so did Rowden and Eveland. Jack ran his usual steady race, and we obviously couldn’t have done this without his continued excellent performance. I told the guys before the race that we needed five perfect races if we were going to win, and we actually got six.”
Reflecting back on the moment, Tarr realizes that meet was the perfect encapsulation of what the 2017 Grand Haven boys cross country team was all about.
“When we won the O-K Red Championship meet, it was a remarkable accomplishment because of the way we did it,” he said. “If one of those races had gone the other way, we would have finished second. And that performance that day says it all about this team. We didn’t win solely on talent or because we got lucky or because a team had a down season. We won because the boys worked hard all season, and because Will and I coached smart and because they went out there and ran smart, tough and competitively.
“And that’s who we are at Grand Haven. We’re hard workers, we’re tough and competitive, and that’s better than talent. That was a remarkably satisfying feeling.”
The Bucs didn’t rest on the laurels, either. They added a second-place finish at the Division 1 regional and a 10th-place finish at the Division 1 state meet. The finish at the Michigan International Speedway to close out the season crossed off another goal the team had entering the season, and proved once and for all that they were one of the elite teams in the state.
“I will remember how much Jack grew as a leader this year, directing the guys at practice after years of watching others do it,” Tarr reflected. “That was invaluable to us. I have a photographic image in my head of every one of our guys finishing at the conference championship to win that meet. In the end, I will remember that these guys worked so hard to earn their success, and that they enabled me to accomplish one of my greatest career goals of winning a second O-K Red Championship and this one outright.
“These guys carried on the impact left by the teams from 2010 and 2011, when those guys taught the younger guys what it takes to be champions. That impact was carried on by the leaders of the 2015 regional team champions. And that’s what these guys learned and did for us this year — they carried on that leadership through the expectations set by the coaches and the goals that we now feel are self-evident for us.
“These guys are proof that if you put in the time, the effort, and the work in this sport, you can accomplish anything.”
GH_XC Add on- Honorable mentions
Spring Lake baseball
The Lakers took the field for 2018 with one goal: be better. After a dismal three-win 2017 season, head coach Jeff Lindsey and a special group of seniors made a culture change a priority, ushering in a new wave of success for the program.
After a rough start, a focus on attitude and mentorship took hold, propelling the Lakers to a regional tournament appearance, where a win in the semifinals served as Spring Lake’s first regional tournament victory since 1993. A tough loss in the finals ended the run, but not without a lasting impact left on the program.
Spring Lake girls soccer
The Spring Lake girls soccer team played a patient game to dominating results this season, cruising through their schedule with just three losses while giving up just six total goals.
A regular-season finale victory over conference rival Grand Rapids Catholic Central, who had dealt the Lakers one of their three losses, set up a prolific playoff run. Spring Lake outscored their opponents 14-0 through their district championship and took down Byron Center 3-0 in the regional finals to earn a rematch with Forest Hills Northern for a regional title.
The Lakers lost in penalties, ending their season as one of the final eight teams standing in Division 2.
Grand Haven boys soccer
Longtime Grand Haven head coach Aaron Dean’s tenure with the team closed with an inspired run to the regional semifinals and a regular season for the books.
The Bucs won their first tour games of the season before running into East Kentwood in their second game of the conference season for their first loss.
A tough middle of the season featured another loss to the Falcons, a 0-0 tie with rival Spring Lake, two ties with West Ottawa and a loss to Caledonia. The bumpy middle revitalized the team as they won their final three games of the season and carried that momentum into the playoffs. Their district title featured wins over Mona Shores, West Ottawa and Hudsonville before they met East Kentwood for a third an final time on a rainy evening in Portage. The Bucs fell, 2-0, closing another compelling chapter of Grand Haven soccer with 15 wins on the season.
Grand Haven boys water polo
The Grand Haven boys water polo team levied a wealth of developed senior talent toward one of the most successful seasons in program history this fall, riding a wave of success to a district title and fifth place at the state tournament.
From the Shootout at the Shore through the district tournament, the Bucs were one of the best in the West. Seniors Mason Fritz and Grant Ruster led the field, while Matt Beals locked down the cage and Joshua Koorneef fought down low as a vastly improved hole-set.
Their star power and dedicated role players added up to a smooth run through the district tournament to claim the title. Things derailed a bit in the regional as a one-point loss to Hudsonville denied them a shot at the Rams and a regional trophy.
The Bucs swam on, finished 2-1 at the state tournament for a fifth-place finish, grabbing victories over Birmingham Seaholm and Jenison in the final weekend of the season.