The veteran core of the Grand Haven girls tennis team and their coach are determined to skirt that reality this season by championing development, poise and fun over earth-shattering expectations.
With five senior players on the team with at least three years of varsity experience, chasing down Hudsonville for the third-place spot in the conference and playing through a daunting regional tournament is a familiar task for the Bucs.
A top-three finish at the conference tournament is an established goal for Grand Haven, while a top-two finish at regionals clinches a trip to state. Last year, they finished fourth and third, missing out on both goals.
This year, they aren’t sweating it.
“When I came in as a coach, I was all about making state. We were going to make it,” said Grand Haven head coach Chris Wilton. “This year, I have tried to lay off that a little bit and focus on fun. We want to improve and get as good as we can, and if we make states, then that’s great.
“That way, the girls aren’t thinking that they have to go to state or it is a failed season. Obviously, we are shooting for it. But you don’t want to put so much pressure on yourself that you play worse.”
The seniors — Kelsey Lansky, Alyssa Yeager, Cauryn Nowicki, Carley Schmidt and Audrey Reus — have seen it all during their time on varsity. Breaking onto the team as freshman and sophomores, they have had a chance to see pressure build and break their teammates and have used that knowledge to create a comforting atmosphere on the eve of the postseason.
“We definitely made a more fun atmosphere,” Reus said. “When it gets serious, and there is pressure, it is definitely a safe space. I think the younger girls know that we won’t judge them if they mess up. It creates a comfortable atmosphere, which is nice because there is a lot of pressure in this sport.”
“Just knowing that tennis isn’t all there is, is important,” Nowicki said. “You have to be able to go out there and have fun. We focus on pumping up the team and making sure that everyone is focused, having fun and keeping each other up.”
“If you mess up, you just have to laugh about it,” Yeager said. “It is our senior year so we think, whatever happens, happens. As long as we did our best as a team, that is all we can do.”
What may seem like a lackadaisical attitude has worked wonders for the Bucs, who are closer to their perennial goal of a top three than ever during the seniors’ tenure. At 3-3 in conference, with losses to top-10 ranked Rockford and West Ottawa, as well as Hudsonville, all eight flights hold winning records coming into the postseason.
“This year has been different. We have been competitive all the way down the line,” Wilton said. “Nobody has felt like they are out of any match. These girls can play with anybody.
“Our seniors have been around for a while and have been tremendously dedicated to the program. They have played year-round for many years.
“That has fed into the lower flights and made us really strong all the way down. They have been working hard year-round and had a good time and our team has a whole has gotten deeper. Everyone has a winning record still, which is really rare.”
But, breezing through the regular season is different than taking on a conference tournament featuring the No. 6- and 7-ranked teams in Division 1. Among the loaded field, Grand Haven will shoot for third, where Hudsonville is sitting pretty after a tight regular season win that featured three 3-set losses for the Bucs.
“There are definitely some really good players in our division,” Wilton said. “Rockford’s No. 1 and 2 singles players are really strong, and West Ottawa is deep all the way down. I really think that our players can hit with them and compete, though. You never know what could happen at the tournament.
“I would like to move into that third spot at conference. We were right there in our match with Hudsonville. I think even then the girls were too worried about it. They got too into it.”
Regardless of how the conference meet goes, seasons are fulfilled at the regional tournament, where state qualifiers are crowned and losers eliminated.
After surviving the O-K Red tournament, all seven teams from the conference funnel into the same region, making for compelling back-to-back weekends.
“It is a whole different feeling at regionals. If you lose, your season is over,” Wilton said. “You also can get that revenge factor. They say it is hard to beat a team three times. That rings true in tennis. You see a lot of matches from the regular season turn around.”
Wilton is confident the play of his seniors and their promising younger flights will propel them to a high finish at the regional tournament.
“Cauryn (Nowicki), Carley (Schmidt) and Audrey (Reus) have been three or four-year doubles players, which is really unique. They know that in our conference the doubles flights are strong all the way down, so they have really progressed their doubles games,” Wilton said. “Each one has their own little things they have learned.
“Cauryn and Carley are in their second year playing together and have done a tremendous job. They were the two-seed last year at regionals and this year they have a chance to get there again.
“Audrey as played No. 1 doubles for three years, which is very unusual. But, she has loved it and it has worked out well.”
“I like the camaraderie of having a partner and having someone to pump you up,” Reus said. “I also like playing at the net, which you can’t do as much in singles.
“I had an older partner for two years. After she graduated, I took on Lilja, who is a sophomore now. That has helped me become more of a leader on the court.”
Lansky and Yeager lead the singles flights as Nos. 1 and 2 and will look to show off their skills gained from long varsity careers this postseason.
“Alyssa at No. 2 singles has really progressed,” Wilton said. “She has learned to stay consistent and can put together really long rallies. I’m really happy with how she has progressed that way.
“Then, there’s Kelsey, who plays a kind of counter-punching game, which is not the easiest style to play against. She doesn’t bang the ball like the other girls do all the time, but she has learned she can play with the best.”
The team is hoping that rings true as the postseason rolls around. The best of the west are coming to town and despite their chill attitudes, this group still wants to succeed.
“Throughout my years I have been in the finals once, otherwise I usually lose in the semifinals. So, my senior year, I would like to make the finals,” Reus said. “There are some good girls we have to play, but they are beatable if we stay consistent.
“For the team, we want to place top three in the conference. State would be nice, but that is our first goal.”
With sights set, emotions in check and skills honed, the 2018 Grand Haven girls tennis team is armed and dangerous this postseason. Watch for them to storm the top of one of the most competitive conferences, and regions in the state.