Top tier Buccaneers

Duncan MacLean • Sep 10, 2017 at 11:46 PM

GRAND HAVEN TWP. — They say to be the best, you have to beat the best. If you can’t beat the best, play them hard and learn what you can.

The Grand Haven water polo team hosted the state’s top-level competition over the weekend at their Shootout at the Shore tournament, featuring seven of the top 10 teams in Michigan.

The Bucs didn’t shy away from the top of the field, taking on defending state champion, and No. 1-ranked Rockford in their first game on Friday night and defending state runner-up, and No. 2 Okemos at 8 a.m. Saturday, losing each contest, 8-11 and 4-6, respectively.

Following the marquee matchups were a few other true tests for the Bucs, as they took wins over Seaholm (11-3), Saline (14-0) and last year’s postseason nemesis Zeeland (10-3), in the championship round.

In their tournament opener against Rockford, the Bucs had the Rams on the ropes, going goal for goal through the first half, but a slow third quarter cost them the game against the state’s top-ranked team.

“It was early in the tournament, so we worked really hard and sprinted hard early in the game,” senior Mason Fritz said. “But, then in the third, we got lazy on counterattacks and stopped getting back. They put five on us in a row and that cost us the game.”

Stifling defense and a potent attack kept Grand Haven afloat early, but the mental drain of the matchup got the Bucs, comprising their stellar play in the pool.

“I think emotional fatigue played a factor,” Grand Haven head coach Bill Hamm said. “Squaring up against what is known to be the best team out there with a precedent that maybe we should be in a different place. They proved through the first half and end of that game that they deserve to be there.

“Early on, we played a lot of great defense. We took their shooters out with one-on-one defense, and I think our offense is as good as theirs. Then, in the third quarter, we got tired and came out playing a different game. We checked out defensively for just five minutes they scored five goals on us.”

Against Okemos, defense was the name of the game as the Bucs held what is the most potent offense in the state to a trim six goals. The effort rendered Grand Haven one dimensional, as they couldn’t get their own shooters ample chances to score.

“We were really effective at shutting down their plan offensively,” Hamm said of the Okemos game. “We just made simple mistakes, bad passes into hole set and turnovers.”

“We lost that game just on stupid mistakes that we can clean up,” Fritz said. “Our defense was good, holding them to six goals is really great. We just lost on our shooting and offense; we didn’t get off enough shots.”

Part of the offensive shortcomings were due to the absence of Grand Haven’s newly developed ace in the hole, Joshua Koornneef. The senior holeset spent the summer honing his skills with the best of the best.

“We call him ‘Beef’ and he plays like the beast, so I’m not sure what we should be calling him,” Hamm said. “He is figuring it out and getting on target. He put in a lot of work over the summer playing with the Rockford clan and went out to California and worked on his hole set play out there.”

As the tournament wore on, the matchups got more favorable for Grand Haven, who dismissed Saline with a 10-goal first half and Seaholm with stifling defense. In their championship-round match, the Bucs handled a depleted Zeeland roster after battling with them throughout the postseason last year.

“We got a little sick of seeing them last year,” joked Hamm. “But that was probably the most complete game we put together this weekend. They played a good game.”

The weekend as a whole proved Grand Haven belongs in the conversation with the best teams in the state, stepping up to tier-1 level play.

A few minor tweaks will have the Bucs ready to take victories over state-champion caliber teams, rather than just running with them.

“Even though we have the biggest field setup in the league, we don’t spread out and we make dumb passes into the hole,” Hamm said. “We were throwing the ball away every game, we had far to many turnovers for the very simple concept of dumping it into set when there is dropping going on, all we have to do is spread out.

“We want enthusiasm, too, when they play. They have to get out there and love it, instead of just playing it. I know they love the game, but the pressure of the moment can get in the way sometimes and they play down to a different level. When we do that, we will be a different club.”

As the tournament hosts, the Bucs got the chance to enter a varsity ‘B’ team, comprised of a mix of junior varsity and varsity reserves, to see what they could do on the big stage.

The ‘B’ squad finished 1-3 on the weekend, falling to Saline (0-5), Jenison (12-3) and Seaholm (6-10). They capped their tournament off with a win over Grandville (9-8).

The Bucs return to the pool today to take on East Grand Rapids at home at 7 p.m.

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