Every Grand Haven sports program dedicates one game a season to honor those around the community and the team that has or are currently battling cancer. This year's edition of the event was especially personal for the volleyball program, as the freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams all had someone on their minds.
"Our Bucs Pride Nights always hit close to home for our program, because we've had a few people who are currently battling cancer or who have recovered from cancer," said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. "We had a dedication before our match with the junior varsity team handing out an honorary game ball to Kayelyn Shanahan's mom, Becky, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. We also have our freshmen coach, Coach Kabel (Sheehan), who has brain cancer and Baby Hang had cancer as a kid, so it's something that's affected the whole program from the freshmen, junior varsity and varsity levels.
"I think Sharon Yonker does a great job setting all of this up, and it's just an amazing night to be a part of."
The volleyball match that followed the ceremony added to the emotional evening with competitive and pulse-pounding action from start to finish.
The host Buccaneers came away with a five-set win over an upset-minded West Ottawa squad by scores of 25-23, 16-25, 25-18, 15-25 and 15-9.
"I think you saw the different sides of our team right now in this match," added Smaka. "In the two sets that we lost, we hit zero. That means you have as many kills as you do errors in a set. In the three sets that we won, we were positive in that category, because we hit really well.
"It's pretty simple. We didn't take care of the ball in those second and fourth sets, and it showed on the scoreboard. We didn't play as well and the scores weren't in our favor.
Grand Haven entered the fifth and final set with a boost of energy, which helped the squad fight back from two deficits and three lead changes. After West Ottawa was ruled to have served out of the rotation with the score tied at 8-8, Grand Haven dug deep and ended the match on a 7-1 run to take the match.
"I think the fact that it was our Bucs Pride Night really gave us that extra push in that fifth set," said Grand Haven senior libero Baby Hang. "We were playing for a purpose, so we didn't want to lose."
After overcoming lymphoma as a three-year-old, Hang decided she wanted to dedicate Thursday night's game to herself and her teammates responded in kind with the majority of the squad dedicating the match to her, as well.
"Every year, I try and play for someone different, but this year is my senior year, so I decided to play for myself," she added. "It was really personal for me, and most of my teammates played for me, too, so it really motived me tonight and made me want to play harder."
Senior setter Ashlyn Hall believes the team's ability to win game-deciding sets comes down to their mental toughness.
"We've really been working on being more consistent and mentally tough in those situations," she said. "We know we can push ourselves out of any situation we find ourselves in, whether we're in a rut or a streak of bad play, we just have to keep playing and get past it.
"I think it's the fact that it's the final push that motivates us. It's like last 100 feet of a race. You can see the finish line, you know it's there, so you have to give everything you've got left to get there."
Smaka echoed that sentiment and told the team before Thursday night's fifth set that they should feel confident given their recent history with the situation.
"I was proud of how our kids responded in that final set, especially when the score was 8-8 and we had the long break in the action," he added. "We've played a lot of third sets (in tournament play) this year, so that last set wasn't anything new to us. We seem to have a good game, followed by a not-so-good game, but we always finish strong in that third set.
"I believe we are 10-2 in Game 3 scenarios this season, so I just told the kids before we started that fifth set, ‘We love these situations. We just have to embrace this moment, play hard and give it everything you got.' If we played every set with the kind of energy we played in that fifth set tonight, maybe we wouldn't have to play so many of them."
Sophomore Mackenzie Gross led Grand Haven in kills with 11, while junior Ashley Slater and senior Avolyn Lepo each added 10. Slater and Sarah Knoll each recorded four aces.
"We're 1-0 in the conference, so we're pretty happy right now," Smaka added. "We'll take it. I thought Avolyn had a nice night in the middle. We still have to work on getting her the ball more. Ashley did a nice job tonight, too. She really stepped up for us and did a good job of running the offense. Baby was great defensively for us. She hasn't been playing a ton of libero, so that was a relatively new role for her.
"It's just interesting how things can change and player roles can change once you get into conference play. We're a deep team, so we have a lot of kids who can contribute on a given night, and tonight we had a few people really step up when we needed it and we got a win."
"We're just not quite as efficient as we need to be yet. We're still working toward that and when we do clean that up; we're going to be a really dangerous team."
Grand Haven (21-7-1) is off until Sept. 20, as they host No. 5 Hudsonville at 7 p.m. for the program's Staff Appreciation Night.