The program has been in rebuilding mode for most of the decade, levying a steady stream of leaders and talent toward consistent improvement.
The 2018 team follows this model, but their rise to power over the last four years has had a dramatic effect on expectations and their chances of achievement.
Led by a class that has seen it all over their four years, and driven by four sophomore individual qualifiers, a junior headed to her third state finals and the No. 1 recruit in the state, the Bucs are gunning for the top this weekend.
“This is the best opportunity that Grand Haven has had in a long, long time,” said Grand Haven head coach Doug Thorne. “I definitely feel we will be a top 10 team, and I believe we have a chance to push the top five. I think we are going to swim really fast this weekend. I’m very excited for these girls.”
That sentiment is an echo reverberating from pre-state interviews from 2017 and 2016, when the Bucs picked up 12th and 15th-place finishes, both tremendous achievements based on the team’s recent history.
In 2015, Anna Ackerman, Kirbey Colella, Brooke Zellman and Annah Taylor watched the state meet from home at the conclusion of their freshmen season, as the Bucs failed to send any swimmers to the big dance.
Now, despite two of the four holding spots on varsity record-setting relays from a year ago, they will take a back seat in their senior season to the team they helped build.
“It never gets old,” Thorne said of their recent ascension. “I was having a conversation with one of the seniors about where we have come since their freshmen year. It is a neat thing as a coach to see a team just continue to get better and better. Obviously, this is not always going to be the case, but it has been for this senior class.
“They paved the way for us to improve and we have. They continue to build a foundation for these younger girls to improve. Those seniors are on our state team because of their body of work over four years. This year, it isn’t necessarily about their speed, it's about who they are as people. They are big keys to our success this weekend.”
The journey has taught the leaders of the 2018 state squad a great deal, particularly once the youngsters started making names for themselves.
Even the fastest swimmers need to get their feet wet. High school competition brings with it a new world of training through lengthy seasons, morning workouts and multi-day meets. By the time the postseason rolls around, the girls have traded their August tans for frozen hair after practice and two-day championship meets, necessitating a whole new level of focus and execution.
“Since we were freshmen, the team has changed a lot,” Anna Ackerman said. “We just have a lot of faster swimmers now. It has definitely taught us to be better leaders. You really have to support them. There are a lot of highs and lows in a season. Being there for them in the best times and the worst is really important. We all have the same goal, which is to do well at the state meet at the end of the year.”
“If we can’t swim and be a part of it, we want the team to do well,” Zellman said. “The best thing for me would be to see all the younger kids succeed. To see that on their faces, that would be really special to us.”
“We are together every day, and that can get tiring being with the same people, always working hard,” Colella said. “It is really cool to have a group of girls like this that you always know has your back. That is important on a team that’s together so for long.”
“You can’t go without saying what a difference these girls have made for our team, and what they mean to us this weekend,” Thorne said.
While the seniors handle the emotional load of the state meet and capable options for relay swims, the sophomores and juniors will worry about scoring the big points.
Grand Haven stands to gain the most ground in the relays. Their state cuts came without drops via taper making their seed times are deceivingly high. Last season, the Bucs broke the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay varsity records, which are again on the chopping block. More notably, a long-standing 400 freestyle relay record is within shooting distance for a motivated team.
“Our relays are huge. Our medley and 200 free relays are both seeded in the top 16, and I think we can break into the top eight to final in both of them,” Thorne said. “I think we could get all three relays in finals, and I can’t tell you the last time that happened for Grand Haven.
“I can also see that 400 freestyle relay record coming down, which stands from 2002. We’re seeded at 24th in that event, but most of the other kids at the Division 1 state meet shaved and tapered to get there, we didn’t, so I expect big things.”
After the relays, Kathryn Ackerman will lead the way individually, as is typical.
The future Wolverine holds the top seed in her signature event, the 200 individual medley, in which she nabbed the Division 1 and All-Class state records a year ago.
She will follow that up with a crack at the 100 butterfly, taking on Rockford senior and future Buckeye Morgan Kraus, who won the event in 2017, also breaking Division 1 and All-Class records.
With the speed to snag a title in any event in the lineup, Ackerman’s choice to take on the 100 fly reflects the competitive spirit that helped earn her distinction as the No. 15 swimming recruit in the nation.
“Everybody in the state knows who she is now,” Thorne said of Ackerman. “I think she can go faster and break her own record in the 200 IM. It is the state meet, so there will be competition, but I think she will run away with that one.
“She chose to go the 100 fly with Kraus as the favorite. Kathryn is seeded fifth right now and hasn’t swum it since the first meet of the year. But, we’ve been training it and she is mentally tough. She is going to be there knocking on Morgan’s door and hopefully push them both to have a race.
“There are a handful of kids at the Division 1 state meet that can say they are in the same class as Kathryn. She is elite, and it is fun to see her race.”
While Ackerman hunts down the greatest challenge available, the rest of the Grand Haven state team will be chasing down a spot in Saturday’s finals.
Basil and Clark will both take on the 200 IM and the 500 freestyle with hopes of breaking into finals. Basil holds seeds of 25th in the IM and 16th in the 500, while Clark sits at 18th in both events.
Veldhouse will swim on all three relay teams, limiting her to just one individual event, coming in the 100 freestyle, where she is seeded 13th overall.
Springer and Skodack will duke it out in the 100 backstroke, hoping to move into point contention from their seeds of 25th and 26th, respectively.
“This is the most we have had qualify individually in a while,” Thorne said. “I think any one of them could make finals and add more points to the team. I’m really optimistic, I think we are ready to swim pretty fast and get lots of girls on the podium for hardware Saturday.”
The 2018 state team got their official send-off from the high school yesterday, as they had to make it over to Eastern Michigan University for competition to begin this morning.
The state meet plays out over two days, with prelim swims Friday and finals Saturday. At prelims, every swimmer in the state who achieved the cut times races in ranked heats. The top 16 finishers get a spot at Saturday’s finals, where they repeat the events, this time for points.
“We started with 56 girls this season, with a lot of newcomers,” Thorne said. “This core group did a great deal helping all those girls, and always knew what was coming at the end of the tunnel. They are resilient. They knew what was expected of them. This is a special time for a special group, now. This is the group that swims year round and is working hard to always get better and it shows.
“We had a great conference meet two weeks ago, and we are hoping to build off that. I think we will.”
Competition for both sessions begins at noon, with spectator tickets going on sale at 10:15 a.m. If you want to catch the finals action Saturday, arrive early to get a spot in line. Eastern Michigan has limited seating for fans.