The Buccaneers came into the all O-K Red regional draw with an 0-8 record against Caledonia, Rockford and Hudsonville during their conference schedule, but entered Tuesday night's regional semifinal match with Caledonia with a new air of confidence and a packed Grand Haven Fieldhouse cheering them on.
After not winning a set against Caledonia during the regular season, the Buccaneers found themselves behind on the scoreboard midway through the first and second sets. Lesser teams might have folded and accepted another defeat, but this particular Grand Haven squad rallied around each other and the energy from their fans to reel off back-to-back comeback wins in Sets 1 and 2 and power past the Scots in Set 3 to sweep their rematch and advance to Thursday's regional finals.
The Buccaneers will host Rockford on Thursday at 7 p.m. for a chance at a regional championship and a trip to next week's quarterfinals in Caledonia.
"We knew they were really a good team, but we also knew that we didn't play our best against them during the regular season," said senior setter Ashlyn Hall. "We've improved a lot since then, so we were more focused on continuing to do the things that we did well last week and keep building on that.
"In every match, there's going to be some down points and some momentum swings the other way. We had to fight back in those spots and we did that multiple times tonight. We really took that on as a challenge and recognized that we could come back if we just took care of business on our end."
The postseason success the Bucs have enjoyed has made the regular season struggles worth it in Hall's eyes.
"It feels really good. Especially since it was a little bit of shaky regular season and the whole team had its up and downs," she said. "Going through all that adversity and coming out of it with a lot of success in the postseason makes us all appreciate this run that much more."
The win over Caledonia gives the Buccaneers a new lease on life in the postseason, where they know anything can happen.
"It changes our perspective on things," Hall said. "To beat a team that got us twice during the regular season gives us a lot of confidence that we can do it again, but we also know that we have to play our best in order to beat a team like Rockford or Hudsonville.
"We proved tonight that anything can happen in the playoffs, and we are a really talented team when we play like we are capable of."
The mid-set timeouts by Grand Haven helped calm the team down in big spots and rally around each other to surge back into contention.
"We just fell behind early in the first two sets, but once we kind of collected ourselves and thought about what we needed to do in order to be successful, we went out and executed," said junior outside hitter Ashley Slater. "We have a fire in us to win and we did everything we needed to do to come back. Our student section was amazing tonight. They really helped us find that extra energy when we fell behind.
"Our theme for the postseason has been the ‘revenge tour', because we're going up against so many teams, like Caledonia, that have had our number in the regular season. We want to redeem ourselves. We are a completely different team than we were during the regular season and we want to keep this going."
Caledonia opened Set 1 with some tough serves and well-placed shots to take an early 10-4 lead over Grand Haven. After a timeout from the Bucs, the momentum quickly shifted to the home team's favor, as Grand Haven outscored 21-9 the rest of the way to take a 25-19 win.
Set 2 saw the Scots bounce back with another strong start. Caledonia took leads of 5-1, 10-6 and 17-10 before Grand Haven took a timeout to attempt to regroup. The break in action paid off again, as the Bucs tied the match at 20-20 with another counter scoring run of their own. Before fighting off a 24-23 deficit, the Bucs scored three straight points after forcing a 25-25 tie thanks to strong net play and crisp passing to close out a 27-25 win.
The Buccaneers carried the momentum swing of Set 2 over to Set 3, as they took a 10-6 lead over the Scots. After Grand Haven extended their lead to 20-14, Caledonia called its final timeout of the match, as they tried to stunt the energy of the Bucs.
The Scots did fight back with a scoring run, but it was too little, too late, as the Buccaneers closed out the match for a 25-23 win to sweep Caledonia and advance to Thursday's regional finals.
"I thought we did an excellent job of executing our gameplan tonight," said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. "We had a few lapses in the middle of the first and second sets where we weren't as sharp as we needed to be. For us to climb back from being 17-10 was a huge momentum boost for us.
"The kids have completely accepted the challenge for what we're trying to accomplish here. Any time someone makes a mistake on a serve or a hit, they're instantly telling their teammates, ‘I got the next one’. It's that kind of attitude that helped us tonight. We played the entire match with a lot of energy."
According to Smaka, the difference in the team now compared to their regular season losses to Caledonia was how the team responded to adversity.
"We talked during those timeouts and discussed how their points were coming off of our errors," he added. "The biggest difference in this team now, compared to earlier in the year, is that our response to those mistakes has changed. We don't sulk and let things get worse; we get back out there and try and make a play to turn it around."
Slater led the team on the attack with 23 kills and added four service aces, while Mackenzie Gross added 12 kills. Sarah Knoll recorded seven kills and three service aces, while Avolyn Lepo also ripped home seven kills.
Ashlyn Hall recorded 49 assists from her setter position, while Baby Hang had 25 digs to lead the defense. Reilly Sweibert chipped in with 12 digs, while Knoll and Lepo each blocked two shots at the net.
"We did a great job of terminating the ball tonight," said Smaka. "Fifty one kills against a team like that is a great number to reach. I think we've done a nice job of carrying over some of the positives that we saw in districts to tonight's match, and for us to do a lot of things well against an O-K Red opponent is huge.
"I still think we need to be a little cleaner on defense and take care of the ball just a little bit more, but man, I feel like we are getting really close to putting everything together."
Each Grand Haven run was sparked by a big defensive play by a Buccaneer. The improved defensive performance has Smaka feeling optimistic moving forward.
"Sarah (Knoll) had a nice stretch during that second set where she dug up a bunch of balls, and we really have the ability to go to so many different people to make plays that it makes us really dangerous," he said.
"Defense is something that we've put a lot of time into and I think that paid off tonight. Now, we get another chance to practice that tomorrow and get a little better in time to play either Rockford or Hudsonville.
"Ashlyn Hall has done a really nice job of running the offense lately. She's been more efficient lately, and her and I have had a lot of conversations this season about her role and how important it is to our success. Mackenzie, Ashley and Sarah have done a really nice job of taking care of those passes and finish plays, too."
The Grand Haven student section was rocking the fieldhouse Tuesday night, with a full allotment of students donning white shirts and making each Grand Haven point or Caledonia mistake exponentially more impactful.
The players, coaches and students all came together after the game to sing the Grand Haven fight song, followed by plenty of hugs and photo-ops.
"I've never seen the fight song being sung after a match like that," said Smaka. "That was one of the coolest things ever. I'm having flashbacks of 2012, when we really rallied behind our community and their support really pushed us to a state semifinal run.
"I'm sure Thursday will be even bigger and better and the kids in the student section seem like they are having fun. They definitely made a difference tonight and I think our kids fed off that energy."