"We were losing to Berkley in the first half, and we had lost to them earlier in the regular season, so I'm sure a lot of people were expecting more of the same," said Grand Haven head coach Jessi Brewer.
“It was 5-0 at halftime, but in the second half, the girls played with more determination and passion and made a comeback to win 20-5. We scored four tries in the second half to clinch the third-place finish."
The Buccaneers finished 3-3 in the regular season, losing to the top three teams in the state — Grandville, Sparta and Berkley — but recording impressive wins over Traverse City, Lakeview and Livingston.
In the state championship tournament, the Buccaneers entered as the fourth seed, but the underdogs would rule the weekend, as the No. 4-ranked Bucs upended No. 3 Berkley, while No. 2 Sparta knocked off defending state champion Grandville in the state championship game.
"It was really an awesome weekend for rugby, and the underdogs came out on top in both of the championship-bracket games," Brewer added. "We lost to Grandville in the semifinals but turned things around against Berkley for a little redemption. Then, Sparta somehow knocked off Grandville, who has won the last four state championships up to that point."
The competitive balance is beginning to even out across the landscape of the girls' rugby field in Michigan, and Brewer believes that will make the entire sport grow in both participation and talent.
"The West Michigan rugby teams are the elite in the state," she said. "There are seven total teams in Michigan, but Grandville has been far and away the superior program to the rest. We are starting to level that playing field between us, Grandville and Sparta. Grandville has won the state title the last three or four years, and now Sparta just dethroned them.
"We've finished third just about every season and this was the hardest year to get to third place. Everyone is getting better and better and I think that will make the sport more exciting and more enticing for young athletes to come and check out what rugby is all about."
The Buccaneers will lose four seniors from this year's team, including two that are heading to Davenport University to continue their college rugby careers, but Brewer is excited about the future of the program.
"We had a young team this year," she added. "Most of our team is underclassmen, so that helps us look into the future and be excited about what we have going on. By the time most of these kids are seniors, they'll have been in the program since they were in middle school. When you have that kind of experience and IQ for the game, it puts you in a position for success and to exceed expectations.
"We're excited about having Emily VanDyke and Makayla Hitsman going to Davenport to join their varsity program. Those two were our team captains this year, and I'm sure they will continue our tradition of sending great rugby athletes down that pipeline.
"Alexis King and Olivia Ortiz were former players for us that have gone to be team captains at Davenport this year, so we're hoping Emily and Makayla will follow in their footsteps."
Sending players to college on rugby scholarships is a great way to attract new athletes to the sport and Brewer hopes the Buccaneers continued success on the field will help as well.
"I'm sure when interested athletes see former players of ours playing on scholarship in college and even making the U.S. All-American team in Olivia's case, it makes the sport more appealing. A big selling point for us is just the general comradery around the rugby community.
"We always have a social after each game, and that serves as a chance to get to know players on other teams and it's just a fun environment to be a part of. A lot of these girls will end up playing together on the same club team in college, so it's a great way to get a head start on that.
"The rugby community isn't as large as other sports in the state, but it might be the most tight-knit, and we take a lot of pride in that."