After earning a bye through the first round, the Bucs hosted Lansing for their playoff debut, riding out an emotional tidal wave to win in five sets, 24-25, 25-16, 25-27, 24-16, 15-13.
The win advances the Bucs to the regional semifinals to be played at Grand Rapids Christian on Thursday at 5:30 p.m., with the regional final match to follow the same evening.
After dropping the first set and reversing for a sizable victory in Set 2, a heartbreaking two-point loss in Set 3 threatened to derail the Bucs’ title hopes as playoff fervor reached a breaking point. Surviving a must-win fourth set came down to controlling their playoff hype.
“It is a really exciting atmosphere,” said Grand Haven head coach Jim Vantol. “There’s a lot of emotion. Everyone knows it is win or go home and that’s different than it has felt all year.
“We had to win the fourth and fifth sets. Mainly, it took settling the boys down. They got a little overhyped at times and that kind of got us rattled. We just had to get back to doing our jobs. Get the dig, get the set and make the kill. Keep things simple and in control. They were able to pull it together and focus through those last two sets.”
“We felt a lot of pressure,” senior Scott Matthews said of the feeling before their must-win fourth set. “A lot of nerves. This is my last season and it’s the last one for a lot of kids. It is so tough to come back and win like that and we were feeling it.”
On top of controlling their own pulse, the Bucs had their work cut out earning points against a tremendously scrappy Lansing team. From the start of the match to the final point, they would not let points die with consistent diving digs and impossible saves.
“Lansing was very tough, they have some really good guys,” Vantol said. “They are known to be defensive. They have a lot of guys who take pride in playing defense. They have really good first contact and all-around their ball contacts are fantastic. We had so many balls that looked like they would score and they would get a fist on it and then the second hit was a perfect set.
“You have to play really good offense to beat a team like that.”
Luckily, the Bucs were back to full strength with both their big hitters returned from injury for the first time in weeks.
“Having Gavin (Jonker) back was big for us,” Vantol said. “He wasn’t 100 percent, but Gavin at 70 percent is as good as you will find around here.
“We had 33 hitting errors, but it felt like a lot more than that in the game. Maybe that’s just the elimination game feeling. We like to hit, and you are going to generate some errors doing that. Credit to Lansing for digging, too. We had a lot of balls that usually count as a kill popped up and played.
“Our two big hitters we always count on did what we need them to do. They put a lot of balls away today.”
Max Hartney led the offense with 17 kills, while Jonker racked up 15 and Reece Chittenden and Scott Matthews each tallied five.
As if first-time postseason nerves, a magnificently scrappy opponent and a return from injury weren’t enough to worry about, Monday’s game took on a new format with the regular-season three-set matches giving way to full-blown five-setters.
“That was the first five-set game we have ever played,” Vantol said. “Most nights when we played, we play three matches, so it's 10 or 11 games, so time wise its probably less than we are used to playing, but it’s all one long game.
“It’s a good thing it was a five-setter. We needed all of them.”
“Its completely different,” Matthews said of the longer format. “You have to be a lot more focused, a lot more committed to the game. It’s a totally different game.”
All things considered, the scene at Grand Haven High School was a fantastic sight for volleyball fans and players in the area. The heart, skill and determination of the players on the court put on plain display that boys volleyball is here to stay, not just a novelty.
“I feel like now that we’re in our second season, people know it is real,” Matthews said. “It’s not for fun, its not a fluke. We really became a unit this year. We played together all through the fall and winter and really became a family and a real team.”
“You could see how competitive this group is today on the court and on the bench,” Vantol said. “They want to win. We had guys that barely played that were all the way into it. Aidan Stellema was great for us tonight, he was not going to let us lose and he didn’t play much at all. He said multiple times, ‘We are not losing tonight,’ and we believed him.
“That was a lot of fun.”