GRAND RAPIDS – Good things come to those who wait.
That has been the case for the Grand Rapids West Catholic girls basketball team.
The Falcons have had to endure two years of disappointment and heartache, but all of that has been washed away with this year’s tournament run.
“It’s really exciting for our team, just because of all the hard work we’ve put in and it's finally showing with this run,” said Falcons senior guard and Michigan State recruit Abbey Kimball, whose team rolled into the Division 2 Semifinals on Tuesday with a convincing 82-27 win over previously-unbeaten Edwardsburg in the Quarterfinals.
“Obviously the past two years haven’t been the best, but we’re just happy we are here and we're just trying to enjoy the moment.”
This moment has eluded West Catholic most recently.
In 2020, the Falcons won their first District title in 25 years and earned a berth in the Regional Finals before the remainder of tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Last season, West Catholic won another District title, but lost to Newaygo, 55-48, in the Regional Final without the services of Kimball and junior standout and Toledo commit Cadence Dykstra.
“You can't predict things like COVID or injuries or whatever circumstance that might come up,” Falcons coach Jill VanderEnde said. “You have to take it day by day, and you have to be resilient and you have to adapt.
“This year has been about being adaptable and yet continuing to persevere. That's what separates the team from years past, even though we’ve had some great teams the past few years.”
The Falcons will play Friday in their first Semifinal since 1995, against Detroit Country Day at the Breslin Center.
West Catholic lost to the Yellowjackets, 44-32, in the 1995 Class B Final.
“They’re a great team that is well-coached and very athletic and skilled,” VanderEnde said. “We will have to come up with a savvy gameplan to disrupt the things they do well.”
The Falcons improved to 24-1 as a suffocating defense helped them to their Quarterfinal win.
West Catholic led 26-5 after the first quarter en route to the lopsided victory.
“Our defense has set the tone all season long, and going into the tournament that’s what we were hoping to hang our hat on,” VanderEnde said.
The Falcons’ only loss occurred earlier in the season against Rockford, which advanced to the Division 1 Semifinals.
West Catholic went undefeated in conference play, led by Kimball and a supporting cast of young talent.
All five of its starters, including Kimball, Dykstra, freshman Elisha Dykstra, sophomore Emma Tuttle and junior Ellie Bies, made the all-conference team, while freshman Anna Ignatoski and sophomore Reese Polega earned all-conference honorable mention.
“It’s always satisfying when you can look at your players and know that they put in the hard work and that they've done everything you have asked and more to try and accomplish a goal that the entire team was seeking,” VanderEnde said. “Just to see those kids’ faces and smiles in the locker room (after Tuesday’s win) and the pure excitement and enjoyment of being able to accomplish something that we set out for so many months ago to do was really rewarding.
“That's what coaching is all about. Getting everyone on the same page and going in the same direction and not leaving anyone behind.”
Kimball, a four-year starter, finished runner-up to Detroit Edison’s Ruby Whitehorn in the Michigan Miss Basketball Award voting.
She is the lone senior, and has embraced her role as a veteran leader.
“In other years, there have been other seniors on the team who I’ve looked up to and they’ve really paved a path for me,” Kimball said. “Just to see how to lead a team, and so I’ve taken that role by getting girls in the gym with me and leading by example. They’ve helped me in that way, and it’s been really cool.”
VanderEnde has seen that growth throughout the season.
“Her skill level is off the charts, but there is a lot of responsibility with being the lone senior,” she said. “She has learned how to embrace her teammates and work with the younger kids. In the past she didn’t have to share that load. She could just be herself and be the leading scorer, but with all the seniors gone she has helped hold the other kids accountable in helping achieve the goals for the program. She’s really matured in that area.”
Kimball will now get the rare opportunity to play on her future collegiate court.
“I’m excited, and it will be the first time playing on that court so that will be fun,” Kimball said. “Every game we’ve been super focused because we want to get to the end goal, which is a state championship.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) West Catholic’s Abbey Kimball (1), Emma Tuttle (15) and Ellie Bies (11) help up a teammate this season. (Middle) Kimball makes her move to the basket. (Photos courtesy of the West Catholic athletic department.)