Sep. 18—HOLLAND — Building confidence isn't something that's manifested overnight.
It's a process that takes trust, commitment and belief in one another — it's a daily task. Grand Haven nabbed another level of confidence on Friday night, starting and finishing strong in their 28-7 victory over West Ottawa — the program's best start since 2014 and a 2-0 jump out of OK Red conference play.
"It's just believing in each other and believing in what we're doing," head coach Mike Farley said. "These guys are fighting like heck."
There were defining moments throughout Friday's contest that proved evidence in Buccaneer belief.
The biggest? Their ability to close out the Panthers in the fourth quarter.
After West Ottawa running back Ryan Stam opened the fourth with a 20-yard TD to inch the Panthers within a score, Grand Haven answered immediately. Bashir Neely bolted the ensuing kickoff for 87 yards, setting up a 9-yard touchdown run from senior Ryan Francis — giving the Bucs a 21-7 lead in a flash.
Francis would follow up his first touchdown with a second just minutes later, this time a 32-yard TD to put the Panthers away, 28-7.
"I was just hyper focused on getting the ball rolling," Francis, who led the Bucs with 105 yards on 17 carries, said. "We really needed to win and I'm happy that we've started out 3-1."
"Coming into this game we had a lot of people that were sick, missing this game," Francis added. "We went up 14-0 but had a little bit of adversity in the middle of the game. But our senior leadership got us hooked back up and built our confidence up."
Add in the contributions from first-year players like Neely and Nathan Boehnke and the Bucs are looking down the rest of their conference schedule, licking their chops.
Neely's 39-yard back shoulder reception late in the first quarter was a shot of momentum — proving he too has stacked up confidence.
"I got their back and they got my back," Neely said of the Bucs. "They believe in me and I believe in myself. Whatever they need me to do, I'm there to do it."
"He had two really great kick returns and the great fade route that almost score," Farley said of Neely. "He's just a tremendous athlete and we're fortunate to get him from the basketball team. He's one of the top 20 basketball players in the Grand Rapids area."
Neely finished with three receptions for 62 yards.
"We're a different team this year," Neely added. "We've got better coaches and our energy is amazing."
Quarterback Owen Worthington followed up Neely's catch, punching it in two plays later to put Grand Haven up 14-0 early in the second quarter. Worthington put the Bucs on the board with his 1-yard TD run with 3:16 left in the first. He finished with 56 yards rushing on 16 carries, two rushing touchdowns and went 6-for-11 passing for 86 yards.
The third quarter saw turnovers from each team — the first a fumble from Buccaneer running back Gaven Strong in the red zone. But Grand Haven responded once again in the face of adversity, as linebacker Bode Wilson intercepted Panther quarterback Cole Tulgestke with 5:32 in the quarter. It was Wilson's first career interception.
"They got that (fumble) and ran it back and they were all hype," Wilson said. "But then we got it and went the other way, so that was pretty sweet."
Wilson credited the work defensive coordinator Jason Durman has preached throughout the season.
"Our main goal today was to lock down the pass, which we did," Wilson said. "He (Duram) has sets goals for us each game and then we have good practices and work towards a couple things to get better. Tackling, wrapping up and that's a good model to go with."
Wilson had a game-high eight tackles and two assists to go along with the key pick. Wilson's a part of the defense that is vastly improved from last year. The Bucs, who gave up 42 points per game last year, are now holding opponents to just 18.5 PPG. Although, there will be tougher tests to come in the likes of Caledonia, Grandville and East Kentwood.
The first starts next week on the road against undefeated Caledonia. The last time the two schools clashed was in 2019 after a break from COVID-19 in 2020.
"They're going to be a battle," Farley said. "Coach Pennington is one of the best in the state. We have a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he's building, and it's going to be a great football game."
Nonetheless, the Bucs will enjoy the jolt of confidence from Friday's performance as they aim to settle into conference play.
"Farley's obviously laid the groundwork," Francis said. "Everyone gets along and we all hype each other up and it creates good energy to help us win."
Contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.