The Grand Haven and Spring Lake volleyball teams have proven they have what it takes to get it done in the postseason. The Bucs didn’t drop a set through the district tournament before knocking off Caledonia for the first time in their third meeting in the regional semifinals.
The Lakers have had it tough from the start, defeating Montague and a high-flying Whitehall team to claim their district title before sweeping O-K Blue Conference nemesis West Catholic in the regional semifinals.
Now, though, both teams are set to face their biggest challenge yet. Grand Haven is tasked with upending yet another O-K Red Conference team that has had their number this season as they host Rockford. Spring Lake, ironically, is set to take on Grand Rapids Christian, who eliminated the Bucs from the Division 1 regional semifinals just one year ago.
It will take every ounce of effort to take home hardware this evening. Then again, this is the Sweet 16 — it’s never easy
Grand Haven has its sights set on winning a regional trophy on its home floor and has the extra incentive of a rivalry matchup, just in case the stakes weren’t high enough.
Rockford comes to town after taking both regular-season meetings from the Bucs, a fact no one is paying much attention to now.
“They have beaten us twice, but we did take a set from them in both games,” said Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka. “They are a very good team but we feel like we match up well against them. It is going to be a great battle and we have no doubt that we can win.”
As both teams are well aware, these two O-K Red rivals play similar styles of volleyball. Both feature tremendous height, have high-caliber outside hitters who like to crush the ball and offenses with a quick tempo. All this points to a rip-roaring regional final.
“There are certain aspects of the way we play that are very similar,” Smaka said. “They are a bigger team and their outside hitter Lindsey Taylor is one of the best players in the state. They have a really fast middle and like to swing away at the ball.
“Taylor had 33 kills against Hudsonville the other night, so she is going to get hers, but we feel we gave the size and blocking ability to at least slow her down a little bit.”
The key to stalling a quick Rockford offense lies in system exploitation. Strong serving and net play can drive a team to abandon their offense in favor of getting the ball back over the net, allowing the opposition to gain an upper hand.
“A lot of the game will be decided by passing and whichever team can stay in system,” Smaka said. “Serve-receive will be really big, as will being able to dig the ball in transition.
“Both teams lose options and become predictable on offense when you put them out of system. If we can serve tough and we can attack well to keep them off balance that will be huge. They will try to do the same thing against us. It is a whole lot easier to play defense if you know where the ball is coming from.”
A quick start serves as another key for a Grand Haven victory. In their regular-season matchups, Rockford made a habit of jumping in front early. While the postseason version of the Bucs has demonstrated a better ability to stay in games while trailing with a pair of comeback sets vs. Caledonia, it is certainly not plan A.
“Coming out strong is going to be big for us,” Smaka said. “Last time we played, Rockford got up on us 15-3 in one set. We did well against Caledonia but we dug some holes. I give our team a lot of credit for fighting back and winning those sets, but that will be much tougher against Rockford.
“It is about that next play mentality,” Smaka added. “When you are in a match, that isn’t the time to judge or reflect. There is time for that when the match is over. We have to focus on the task at hand and stay in the moment. That will help us limit big runs.
“We have been much better lately about forgetting mistakes and putting them behind us. We realize that there are more plays to be had. Earlier in the year, we didn’t do that as well.”
Two members of this Grand Haven team will be out for revenge, as the Rams denied them a regional title at the conclusion of the 2016 season in a five-set thriller.
“Avolyn Lepo and Ashley Slater were on that team,” Smaka said. “That was a very different team back then, but we have kids who have been in this experience before.
“We know it is a tall task ahead of us, but we also know it is possible and it would be great to get to celebrate on our home floor. We are very deep and have a lot of girls ready to contribute if need be tomorrow.”
Grand Rapids Christian spent last November rolling through the Division 1 state tournament, defeating Grand Haven in the regional on their way to a quarterfinals appearance. Now, they look to match that feat with a win over Spring Lake after enrollment numbers dropped them into Division 2.
Spring Lake hasn’t seen the Eagles play at all this season, but they figure they have seen enough already this tournament to get them ready for the juggernaut.
“We know they are going to be the toughest team we have played this year,” said Spring Lake head coach Cassidy Hazekamp. “We have already seen some really great teams so far. We are ready to battle.”
A three-set defeat of Whitehall in the district finals yielded the Lakers’ first district championship since 2013, making tonight’s contest the furthest anyone on the current squad has run in the postseason. Hazekamp isn’t worried about the moment being too big. This Spring Lake squad is fueled by decibels.
“Whitehall was a great win in a fun environment, and so was West Catholic on Tuesday,” Hazekamp said. “Both teams had big student sections, it was really loud and we loved it. That helps our girls.
“I expect it will be even louder Thursday, I think it is going to be a great turnout and I’m excited for my girls to get to play in that type of game.”
A stalwart class of senior leaders is ready to anchor the Lakers for their big-time matchup, regardless of who lines up across the net or who they bring with them to the gym.
“Our seniors love volleyball,” Hazekamp said. “They love to compete. They love to battle. They thrive in this type of environment. So, I’m excited to see how we perform.”
While dealing with the environment of a regional final game is one thing, controlling the team on the other side of the net is quite another, particularly if it’s Grand Rapids Christian.
The Eagles rolled through their regular-season schedule to a 34-2 overall record, finishing atop the O-K Gold Conference at 12-0.
Their dominance has continued in the postseason, as they haven’t lost a set yet in tournament play.
Grand Rapids Christian has it all with height, power and speed. A strong block keeps the ball out of their half, while Jordyn Gates runs a quick offense from the setter position. Addie VanderWeide and Maria Bos finish things off with solid hitting from the outside.
“They’ve got some tall girls that put up a big block, and their outsides are pretty strong,” Hazekamp said. “VanderWeide and Bos get 90-percent of their balls and their setter is a great player.
“They run a faster offense than what we are used to seeing. They are a great passing team.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about what we need to do well. It starts with serving aggressive. We need to send them out of system on the serve, we are really going to dial that up. We want to make sure we are tracking their setter and staying on her and hopefully blocking those two hitters.
“We will need to be crafty at the net. We know they have a big block so that will be key. After that, it’s just the little stuff. Staying in system on our side, especially on serve-receive. We’ve got to cover behind our hitters so they can swing away at that big block. And, we have to remember that one big play is only one point and that we can bounce back right away.”