The Grand Haven boys tennis team was all in as they hosted West Ottawa on Wednesday, hoping to emote their way to their first victory over the Panthers in 20 years. Despite the will, there was no way; the Bucs lost the contest, 7-1, continuing West Ottawa’s ownership of the rivalry.
“We haven’t beaten them in at least 20 years,” Grand Haven head coach Chris Wilton said. “We have tied them twice in those 20 years that we know of. So, they were really gunning for this, the guys were really pumped up and competed well. I was pleased with that.”
The final score did not indicate the intensity of the meeting, with two matches reaching third sets and two more featuring tiebreakers.
“Even though we lost 7-1 today, it was close,” Wilton said. “Five or six, or even seven of those matches could turn around. We can compete in all of them, and I don’t know if we could say that with West Ottawa in recent years.”
The longest match of all came at No. 1 doubles, where Dylan Shenefield and Mason Price staged an impressive Set 1 comeback and battled through a tiebreaker (7-6) to take an early lead. The pair would jump ahead in the second set, before letting the Panthers back in for a tie at four games apiece.
From there, it was all West Ottawa, who took the final two games in Set 2 before dismissing Set 3, 6-2, for the win.
Nathan Sexton forced a third set with a tremendous Set 2 turnaround. After falling in Set 1, 6-3. Sexton roared back to win Set 2, 6-1, to force the winner-take-all scenario. True to the day, his West Ottawa opponent seized control in the must-win situation, taking the victory, 6-2.
The drama continued at No. 2 doubles, as Chris Akselberg and Weston Taylor gave it their all in a two-set loss, pushing both into extra games. They fell in Set 1, 7-6, and got down early in Set 2, trailing 2-3. The pairs traded games from there as neither team could pull away. Eventually, though, the Bucs ran out of gas to fall, 7-5.
Noah Bachmann continued to lead the charge with Grand Haven’s lone win of the day, dominating at No. 1 singles for a straight-set victory (6-0, 6-1).
The typically overpowering Grand Haven singles lineup failed from there. Spencer Sortman fell at No. 2 (6-1, 6-2), while Riley Wilton fought through a marathon first set only to lose at No. 3 singles (7-6, 6-2).
At No. 3 doubles, John Richardson and Matt Baldus struggled to earn points, falling in two sets (6-1, 6-2), while Ian Rant and Brayden Rowley fell at No. 4 doubles by the same score.
“All the matches were really close,” Wilton said. “They just ended up making some shots and we didn’t. It wasn’t terrible, in tennis you can win or lose a match big time by winning or losing just three or four points. It can turn quickly that way.”
The emotion of the rivalry matchup both fueled the Bucs’ competitive drive and caused some unforced errors, causing those crucial point swings.
“Occasionally, we went for a little too big of a shot instead of a consistent shot,” Wilton said. “I saw one of our guys go for a big shot and miss it, then he got mad at himself and let it snowball into a few more shots. The good news is he realized he made a bad shot, the bad news is he let it get to him.”
Mental toughness becomes paramount in high-intensity, marathon matches, making those timely mistakes all the more costly.
“Often in those third sets it is all down to the mental game and how you can manage that as you are playing,” Wilton said. “The physical stuff kind of goes into auto pilot. Our guys fought hard all the way through, it just didn’t turn our way today.”
The loss drops Grand Haven to 1-1 in an O-K Red Conference without a clear leader this early in the season.
“We don’t know who is at the top yet,” Wilton said. “West Ottawa lost to Grandville in a tournament early in the season, and Rockford should end up pretty good. Hudsonville hasn’t even played a conference match yet, so us and those four teams will all be close.”
The Bucs return to the court Saturday for the Holland Invitational, before seeing Grandville on Wednesday.