The Buccaneers scored on their first possession of the game on a try by senior Collin Monsma, taking an early 5-0 lead over the Highlanders. However, after that highlight play, the Grand Haven squad appeared to slowly run out of gas against a talented Howell squad that kept pushing the pace against the Buccaneers.
The Highlanders would take an 8-5 lead into halftime, and add a free kick conversion and a try to pull ahead 18-5 with only a few minutes left to play.
In a true display of their grit and character, the Buccaneers powered the ball down the field and added a try of their own when Tristian Robbins of Mona Shores plunged into try zone to bring the game to it’s 18-10 final tally.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do. We talked about it, we drilled on it, but in the moment of the game, we just made too many little mistakes,” said Grand Haven head coach Dave McDonough. “We were just a little too slow to the rucks, a little too slow to get the ball out, and those two things combined allowed them to do exactly what they wanted to do out there.
“We were down by three at the half, and we decided we didn’t want to make any drastic changes, so we stuck to the gameplan. Unfortunately, in the second half, the energy level just went down. I think the guys got challenged by a very good team, and it was a little tough for them to get going again.
“Between their physicality and our mental mistakes, it created a lot of opportunities for them to take over the game, and they did.”
Grand Haven senior Bryan Batten believes the fundamentals that got the Buccaneers to the state championship game with an undefeated record went missing on Saturday.
“We didn’t execute very well. Throughout the season, it’s been our execution, focus and energy that has helped us win matches, and we didn’t have any of that today,” he said after the game. “We let them play their style of game, and we didn’t play our game at all. It really feels as simple as that.
“It felt like we were thinking too much out there and not just relying on our instincts. We didn’t hang on to the ball, and we didn’t do the simple, small things that you need to do in order to be successful.”
The state runner-up finish is the second in three seasons for the Buccaneers. Despite the disappointment of the loss, McDonough was appreciative of the collective effort his team displayed all season.
“Everything has been building to this moment, and you see all the effort these kids have put into this season and the possibilities that were out there, and you can’t walk away being anything but proud of these guys,” he added. “It’s obviously disappointing in this moment to lose, but I love these guys, and hopefully, we can get right back here next year.”
The Buccaneers will lose quality veterans across their lineup heading into next spring, but three seniors in particular will be hard to replace for McDonough.
“I can’t believe I’m going to have to go to battle next year without Bryan Batten, Caleb Braley and Collin Monsma,” he lamented. “Those three guys have been leaders for us the last few years. They came straight from wrestling in the winter into rugby training, and always set a great example for their teammates.
“Hopefully, we have a younger generation behind them that will continue that building process. You can already see the growth of the program by how many alumni are here today, and all the former players standing on the sidelines with us. The goal now is to take what all those former players have done and build the program to the next level, which is a state championship.”
One senior turned alum is already planning on being a proud supporter of the 2018 edition of the Grand Haven boys rugby team.
“It’s been a wonderful experience playing rugby at Grand Haven, and I’m already looking forward to coming back here and supporting the team next year,” Batten added. “It’s terrible to see us fall short of the state title twice like that, but I think we’ve really helped build this program into a contender.”