GRAND HAVEN — Tucker Kooi was the first member of the Grand Haven men’s volleyball team to sprint to the district championship trophy on Wednesday night.
The Buccaneers senior middle hitter had already suffered a first-round exit from his team last spring on the volleyball court and suffered an early-round upset on the basketball court this winter before getting the chance to hoist any district equipment.
Those past heartaches have fueled Kooi and company so far in the 2022 men’s volleyball season and the latest result was a pair of impressive Buccaneers wins over Reeths-Puffer and Mona Shores on Wednesday night in the semis and finals. of the Grand Haven High School district.
The Buccaneers swept Reeths-Puffer (25-18, 25-16, 25-13) to advance to the District Championship game, where they faced a scrappy Mona Shores team. The Sailors fought to the bitter end, but Grand Haven’s depth proved to be the difference as they recorded final scores of 25-19, 22-25, 25-15, 25-22.
Grand Haven advances to face Sparta in the state quarterfinals on Monday from Hudsonville High School. The tentative start time is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
“Last year we got a bit stung when we lost in the first round of the playoffs, so we came back hungry this year and it feels good to come back out there and win the district championship,” said Kooi. “I think we just really wanted it more. You could see they were quite frustrated, but we kept our composure and stayed pretty solid throughout the game. We could hear them (talking trash) but we just kept it on our side of the net and didn’t care what they were doing. We don’t play well when we’re angry, so we kept our cool and kept fighting.
AFTER: Photos from Wednesday night’s District Championship tournament
Grand Haven boys’ volleyball head coach Jim VanTol didn’t have to say much ahead of Wednesday’s playoffs as he saw the player focus that every coach dreams of.
“Most of these guys in the starting lineup tonight remember last year, so they didn’t want that to happen again,” he said. “They were pretty focused at the start of the evening and we had some good practice this week before the tournament. They had a lot of desire tonight. We weren’t going to lose because of desire and I was pretty happy with their performance tonight.
“Also give a lot of credit to Mona Shores. They played really hard and kept a lot of balls alive that a lot of teams aren’t used to hitting. When we get a big swing on the outside it’s usually a killer for us and they played hard and made a lot of great digs and big blocks. In the end, I think we had just enough firepower on our side to finally overcome it.
Caden Hostetter finished with 28 kills, three aces, two blocks and seven digs to pace Grand Haven, while Cole Lachmann added 23 kills, two aces and nine digs and Kooi had 19 kills, three aces, one block and 10 recoveries.
“Our three big hitters had a great night again,” VanTol said. “Caden, Cole and Tucker all hit the ball really well. We would have liked to send the ball a little more to Tucker, but when the pass is not perfect, we do not really have this possibility.
“Grant (Englesman) played very well tonight too. As a second blocker, he was very effective. He had 11 kills and only two errors, and he had a .409 (hit percentage). Tucker can sometimes eclipse him in terms of size and what the final stats say, but Grant probably had his best night of the year tonight.
The Grand Haven men’s volleyball team includes a melting pot of athletes ranging from multi-sport varsity players like Kooi to first-year participants in competitive sports. The combination wasn’t always a winning recipe, but the team eventually bonded and formed a championship culture.
“It certainly had its ups and downs like any season, but I felt like we pulled together at the end,” Kooi said. “We did a lot of team work like going out for team dinners and stuff like that and building our relationships with each other and that really translated on the pitch and we played really well together those last time.
“We never really played (volleyball) with each other until the last two years. We have people in the team who come from a long sporting experience and some people who play competitive sports. for the first time, but everyone engages and competes very well in this team.
The family atmosphere extends to the sidelines where assistant coaches Brian Cryst, Alana Kooi and Aaron Smaka enjoy the coaching process of their sons Caleb (Cryst), Tucker (Kooi) and Cayden (Smaka).
“Last year, when she wasn’t an assistant coach, she was always telling me things when I came home because she wasn’t there at the time and was trying to correct the things she was seeing,” said said Tucker of his mother, who coached Jenison to back-to-back state championships in 2007-08. “Now that she’s on the sidelines, she’s really brought a lot to this team and really helped improve me and my team-mates.”
The roster of Grand Haven and its field of competition continues to expand, as Michigan’s high school volleyball landscape has grown from four teams in 2018 to 37 teams this spring.
“The growth is fantastic,” VanTol said. “There are a lot of great programs already and we’re finally getting teams on the east side of the state. We have six teams in a conference there this year in Detroit, which we’ve struggled to get the last few years. We have 37 teams this year after having had 20 last year after being blocked by COVID-19 the year before. There are a whole bunch of other schools already applying to join, so it will continue to grow.
Before looking too far into the future, VanTol and his team have their eyes set on a singular prize.
“We only have one cap and that’s to win it all,” he said. “If we don’t win it all, it will be disappointing for these guys because we believe we have the talent to do it. We’re just going to make sure we keep putting it together.
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