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Members of Grand Haven's 2009 football team run onto the field during a home game.

GRAND HAVEN — Tonight, the Grand Haven football team will play in their first district final football game since the 2009 team took on Rockford. The 2009 team was the first Grand Haven team to make the playoffs since 1999, so these two teams are similar in the way they ended long playoff droughts. How they got there was very different.

The 2009 Buccaneers came into the season with Bryan Kiel as their quarterback. Kiel was considered to be a Division 1-caliber quarterback. Three plays into the first game of the season, Kiel injured his foot, putting him out for the season. That’s where junior quarterback Adam Poel came in.

“I was kind of thrown into the fire there. It was a crazy ride and a lot of fun,” Poel said. “ I think the fact that—obviously it was a horrible injury Bryan suffered—but the fact that it happened in a game was significant because it didn’t really give me time to be nervous. It would have been one thing if he got hurt in practice and I knew I was going to be playing. It happening in the game relieved some nerves because it was me.”

The Bucs won that game 35-14. Grand Haven sported a strong defense that season only allowing their opponents to score 12 points per game. Jerry Westerman was the middle linebacker on that defense and looks back on that season with fondness.

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Logan Cuddington (3) and teammates celebrate scoring a touchdown in their opening game against Traverse City West.

“I just remember having a blast,” Westerman said. “Football is fun, but when you have a group of guys on the field you can trust and you play together really well you have a lot of fun. When you have success it makes it even better. 

“Week in, week out we worked hard against tough opponents,” he added. “The core group of tough, hard-working guys just made winning easier. 10 years later looking at it, you’re really proud of it but you just think about the guys that you went through two-a-days with and all of the lifting and running. I’d love to do it all over again.”

The Bucs finished the season 9-2 with their only two losses coming to Rockford. Grand Haven ended another drought that season, beating a Muskegon team that they hadn’t taken down since 1982.

“That was for me a turning point for us. Our class had been pretty successful in previous, but it was like ‘Holy cow we just beat Muskegon,’” Westerman said. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I think we put over 12 or 13 thousand people in the stadium that night. It was a pretty big event back then. Coach was always screaming ‘you’ve got to believe it’ and at that point of the season I really started to believe it.”

Poel had a special attachment to being the quarterback on the team that led Grand Haven back to the playoffs after 10 years. Poel’s father Randy has been coaching football in Grand Haven for over 35 years, and because of that Adam was on the field as a water boy for the 1999 playoff team.

“I was a kid down on the sidelines in 1999. To be a part of all the struggles and then to be a part of the group that got back to the playoffs was pretty special,” Poel said.

“We had absolutely incredible community support throughout the entire season, the bleachers were always full. It didn’t matter if we were on the road or if we were at home. I will never forget when we rolled up to Rockford for the district final and there was a line of several hundred people from Grand Haven already outside of the said waiting to get in before the team had even gotten there. I’ll never forget driving past the school and seeing that, it was so cool.”

The season came to an end in 2009 with a 14-7 loss in the district final to a familiar foe in the Rams. Tonight, the Buccaneers have an opportunity to bring the school its first football district championship. Poel—who also calls the Bucs’ football games for WGHN—feels that 2019’s team is playing with enough confidence to fare much better than the Week 3 loss to Hudsonville.

“These kids have been playing games with playoff-level stakes going all the way back to October now. It should be business as usual for the kids as the underdogs and they have really embraced that role. This isn’t a team that I would want to play right now. They are playing really good football,” Poel said.

The Buccaneers attempt to avenge their early-season loss and win the school’s first district title tonight at 7 p.m. in Hudsonville.

Contact D’Angelo Starks by email at dstarks@grandhaventribune.com or on Twitter @DAngelo_Starks.

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