GRAND HAVEN — It had been a decade since Grand Haven’s last playoff victory in football, back when the Bucs’ current players were still in elementary school.
Now, there’s no ‘aw-shucks’ mentality. The Bucs aren’t just happy to be in a district final. They want a first district title in school history.
“I’m excited, yeah, but I want to win,” senior linebacker Aidan Cooper said. “I’m not happy to be here, I want more. The coaches have been telling us all week to bring that hardware home, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
It’s practically a minor miracle that Grand Haven is even in this spot. Heading into the final week of September, the Bucs were 1-3 with two big conference losses to two O-K Red teams. For a program that had gone 4-14 in its last two years, familiar doubts might have crept in. With second-ranked Rockford looming, there seemed no route into the playoffs.
However, something head coach Joe Nelson had preached all season nearly paid off with a major upset.
“My whole philosophy is a stay-the-course mentality,” Nelson said. “We do what we do because we believe in it. There’s a little while where you think about changing it, but we needed to stay the course instead of going crazy and making something worse. We pared it down so the kids were more confident, and it worked.”
Grand Haven came into Rockford and had a chance at beating the Rams, ultimately falling 17-14. However, it did kick off a run of five straight victories – starting with an overtime victory against a team they could play in a regional semifinal, East Kentwood.
“Rockford at the time was a No. 2 team in the state, and we played with them for four quarters,” senior Will McWatters said. “We could have won that game, I think that was the time where we realized how good we could be. I think we played better because of that.”
There were no inspirational speeches that inspired the winning run. Instead, a large senior class set the tone with their work ethic, helped by a coaching staff that focused gameplans on things the Bucs did well.
“As a senior class, we came together and said that the playoffs started then,” McWatters said. “We kind of all knew. We had to win, and the seniors focused on that.”
“We just had to buy into what the coaches were saying,” Cooper added. “Working hard in practice, putting in the effort. When we do that, we’re a very good football team. It’s no fluke that we made it here.”
The senior class has been entrusted with plenty of leadership duties even stretching back to last season. With a group that makes up nearly half the team, it wasn’t hard for the younger Bucs to get in line.
“It just took some senior leadership,” Cooper said. “The juniors and sophomores started buying in. Everyone else followed that lead. Once we got back to doing our bread and butter, we’re a whole different team. We can focus on the small things and get better at that.”
Now, with snow on the field during practice Wednesday, it’s the greatest time of the year – at least to Nelson and his staff. All that stands between Grand Haven and a first district title in school history is Hudsonville – a team they haven’t beat since 2011.
“It’s a great problem to have,” Nelson said about practicing in the snow. “This is what you work so hard for, for having November practices.
The Eagles are 7-3, losing twice in conference play. In October, they beat Grandville before losing to Rockford and East Kentwood. A change at quarterback could test the Bucs, as converted wide receiver Ike Irish has featured in recent weeks. The sophomore has a scholarship offer from Auburn to play baseball, so if nothing else, the Bucs will be facing quite the athlete on Friday.
“Together, we’re able to beat bigger teams,” Nelson said. “We know we were at our worst when we played Hudsonville first, and now we’re at our best. I think we’ve got a good chance.”
“It’s a completely different team and a different time now,” McWatters said. “It’s very exciting. We got the win last week, but now we want more.”
Contact Kyle Turk at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KyleTurkGHT.