The 2019 band of state-bound Buccaneers will head to the Division 1 meet at the Holland Aquatic Center this afternoon without the hype of a top-three performer, All-Class hopeful, or even a top-10 seed. But, that’s not to say they won’t be heard amid the state’s best. In fact, their stealth approach may yield higher bounty.
All nine of Grand Haven’s qualifiers cracked their qualification times during the regular season — without a taper. Meaning, Michael MacDonald, Mark Wilgenburg, Eli Vandenbrand, Chris Akselberg, Carter Brown, Ethan Ball, Thomas MacDonald, Griffin Kelly and Jackson Hamm all qualified amid high-volume training in the pool and in the weight room, truly saving their best for last.
“Good things happen to those that work hard,” said Grand Haven head coach Doug Thorne of his state team. “We don’t have three lightning bolts like they do across the river there, but we have a team full of guys that will work hard and make it to the state meet.
“This group exemplifies what hard work is. Division 1 state cuts are stinkin’ fast. These guys committed at the beginning of the season and have bought in all year.
“We know we are one of the better teams, but the psych sheet (qualifying order) isn’t going to show it because we haven’t rested. We swam right through our conference meet. For the majority of the kids at the Division 1 meet, it took a taper, a shave and a rest to even get in, because the cut times are so fast. Our kids understand what is ahead of them. They know they have a ton of people to pass, but they also know if they show up and perform like the can, it won’t be a problem.”
The sneak attack from the bottom of the psych sheet makes this year’s team more ninja than pirate, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s pretty fun,” said senior Mark Wilgenburg. “It is fun looking up the psych sheet and noting all the guys you know you are going to beat. It makes it exciting.”
Regardless of seed or expectation, the state meet serves as the culmination of months of hard work for swimmers all over the country. Some teams cope with weekday two-a-days by winning dual meets, some count down the days to crushing their rival at the league finals and some, like Grand Haven, simply hunker down for the long haul, training over four months to prepare for 48 hours of competition in March.
“This team sees the big picture,” Thorne said. “We qualified our 200 freestyle relay at the first meet of the year, West Michigan Relays, and we had that conversation about what is important to us. They all came up with scoring at the state meet — making sure you are up on the block this Saturday.
“They have bought in and it has been a process. They see from where they’ve been to where they are going and understand how we got here. They’ve gotten what they have out of the sport through hard work. That makes it fun as a coach. “
With their eyes dead-set on the state meet, duals against the Lakers in December, peak training over Christmas break, and coming in on snow days in January can get mighty taxing. The Bucs stayed focused with a little help from their friends.
“We are happy all the time,” Vandenbrand said. “Regardless of the hard work, we are just looking forward to the next meet. We’re all about having fun in and out of the water as a team.”
“I think the fast guys and the seniors have emphasized that and made it a priority,” Wilgenburg said. “But, it takes it from the whole team to work.”
With the hard part behind them, a celebratory mood has taken hold of the roster.
“It is nice to look back on, once it is done,” Wilgenburg joked. “Once it isn’t happening, the hard work is great. It is fun to look back on and think about how you made it through it.”
“It’s really a feeling of accomplishment,” Vandenbrand said. “It’s an ego boost this time of year to think about all we have done.”
Now, as they suit up for today’s preliminary session, that team-first, workman’s attitude remains a key to Grand Haven’s success.
“We have a solid group,” Wilgenburg said. “We are all in the same spot. We can pick up where each other left off and push each other forward. There isn’t anyone out alone in front of the rest.”
“I’d say it is humbling,” Vandenbrand added. “Knowing we can’t rely on one or two people to carry us through. We know as a team we can do it together.”
Individually, Brown holds the highest seed for Grand Haven heading into the meet, sitting 12th overall in the 100 backstroke with a so-far best time of 53.80 seconds.
Vandenbrand holds the 25th seed in the 200 freestyle at 1:46.10 and the 25th seed in the 100 freestyle at 48.56. Wilgenburg rounds out the Bucs’ individual entries with the 20th seed in the 50 freestyle at 22.15.
The rest of the state team fills out Grand Haven’s three qualified relays. The 200 medley comes in at 22nd with a time of 1:40.21, while the 200 freestyle sits 24th at 1:30.75 and the 400 freestyle holds 17th at 3:16.95.
“A typical drop in a relay is around 0.5 second,” Thorne said. “Those cuts are so fast, especially in relays, most teams won’t drop a ton because they already tapered and shaved. We plan on dropping three or four seconds on the relays and getting ourselves to Saturday. That’s the game plan, and it always has been.”
While the Bucs plan on moving up the standings into the state’s elite finishers, they also plan on challenging their own marks from a year ago —marks that toppled long-standing school records and cracked the All-American list.
“There is no question we had a very talented state group last year,” Thorne said. “But putting times on the board this week and talking through what we think we can do, we are going to press those kids from last year.
“If we swim what we are capable of, we will have all of our individuals and relays on the blocks Saturday, and that’s because of the commitment they have shown since Day 1.”
“We feel good,” Vandenbrand said. “It’s going to be fast.”
The show gets started today at 12 p.m. with the preliminary swims. The top-16 performances today earn a spot at Saturday’s finals, where they will repeat each event for points.