By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – By Bree Salenbien’s admission, she was “kinda out of it” during Saturday morning’s Division 4 Final at Van Noord Arena.
But that gave Adrian Lenawee Christian a chance to show this year’s title was won by a fully talented team in addition to being paced by one of the state’s top sophomores.
The all-stater and no doubt early candidate for the 2021 Miss Basketball Award was as off as 17 points, 13 rebounds and six assists can be, perhaps. But junior sister Dani Salenbien scored a game-high 19 points, and as a team the Cougars held St. Ignace to its season low for points – and held on 48-46 to earn their second-straight championship after claiming the Class D title a year ago.
Scoring came to a standstill as both teams locked down defensively during the second half. Lenawee Christian didn’t even have a field goal during the fourth quarter and scored their second-fewest points of this winter. But the Cougars held onto the lead for all but 26 seconds of the final period and made a pair of defensive stops over the final two minutes to keep from relinquishing it at the end.
“(It showed) that we played together and we trust each other, and when one person’s down we’re going to pick each other up,” Dani Salenbien said. “We have girls who will step up when we need it, and that helps a lot. We are there to pick each other up no matter what.”
Lenawee Christian finished 26-2, its only losses to ranked Division 3 teams Grass Lake and Michigan Center. The Cougars are a combined 52-3 over the last two seasons – and of the seven players who saw the floor Saturday, only guard Brooke Brinning was a senior.
St. Ignace (27-1) was going for its first championship since winning Class C in 2015, and first 28-0 finish of its storied history. The Saints should also be considered major contenders again next season, as they’ll graduate significant senior forwards Emily Coveyou and Madison Olsen but are set to return the rest of this season’s roster.
The teams Saturday couldn’t have been more perfectly matched, with the 6-foot-2 Bree Salenbien and 6-foot Coveyou used to carrying the offensive loads for their respective teams while talented casts provided perhaps underrated contributions around them.
The score was tied 10 times and for 9 minutes and 35 seconds total. At the end of it all, the deciding basket may have been sunk just before halftime. After Bree Salenbien and St. Ignace sophomore guard Emmalee Hart traded 3-pointers to make the score 30-30 late in the second quarter, Dani Salenbien sank a 2-pointer with nine seconds to play in the first half that gave her team a slight edge heading into the break.
And Lenawee Christian would end up needing every point.
“I can kinda just tell if she’s in a little zone,” Cougars coach Jamie Salenbien said of his eldest daughter on the team. “And it looked like she was, so we just wanted to try to get her in good spots. She was feeling it tonight. … She’s got a real good change of speed, change of direction. So it helped at the end of the second quarter, when she got to the baseline and laid it in.”
St. Ignace made 30 percent of its shots from the floor for the game, and Lenawee Christian connected on 33 percent. St. Ignace applied its signature press, and the Cougars had 21 turnovers. Lenawee Christian had a plan to press as well during the fourth quarter – “but that got thrown out the window,” coach Jamie Salenbien said. “We just tried to hang on at the end. With the amount of good defense being played out there, it was hard to get good looks. … They were up in our grill.”
The Saints dominated below the basket as well, outscoring Lenawee Christian 28-10 in the paint. But the best “all-in” effort by Lenawee Christian – keeping with the team's motto this season – came in limiting St. Ignace’s 3-point shooting, as the Saints could connect on only 2 of 18 from beyond the arc.
“I’m proud of our kids, their stick-to-itiveness even though we couldn’t make a shot,” St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. “We kept at it, kept fighting. … We knew it was going to be an epic game, but we fell a little short. They definitely were there all heart, and I’m proud of them.”
Coveyou scored 17 points to lead St. Ignace, and sophomore guards Hallie Marshall and Hart both added 11 and combined for seven of the team’s nine points during the fourth quarter. Marshall also added three assists and four steals, and the defensive-minded Hart had six rebounds and one steal and many more contributions that didn’t show in the box score. Her basket during the final second made the final margin.
“Even though we didn’t win today and have the season we hoped for,” Coveyou said, “it still doesn’t take away from the awesome season we had.”
Bree Salenbien – who made the game-winner to send her team to the championship game a year ago – connected on only 3 of 14 shots Saturday. But Dani Salenbien made 6 of 11, and Brinning, junior guard Libby Miller and freshman guard Cara Anderson all added four points. Despite the lack of a field goal, the Cougars made 10 of 11 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, and Bree Salenbien finished 9 of 10 from the line for the game.
“I’m so proud of the culture these girls have created, led by my seniors Brooke and Grace (Beach), and our captain Dani and the rest of them. Everybody’s accepted their role in an era when, quite frankly, no one wants to share,” Jamie Salenbien said. “These girls are all about sharing, commitment, trust, love, sacrifice and their faith, and it’s carried us through to here.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Adrian Lenawee Christian players celebrate their second straight MHSAA Final win Saturday at Calvin College. (Middle) The Cougars’ Bree Salenbien (35) works to get to the basket with three Saints defending, including Emma Feleppa (42).
Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer has experienced unforgettable highs and nightmarish lows during her 25 years as the girls basketball coach at Grand Haven.
It’s now the 10-year anniversary of an amazing three-year stretch from 2011 to 2013, when “Coach K” guided the Buccaneers to a combined 81-2 record, three consecutive berths in the Class A Semifinals and back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
The lows are harder to pick out, but the way Grand Haven lost at Hudsonville on Jan. 24 certainly qualifies.
The Bucs led 46-44 with time running out, when Haven was called for a shooting foul with one-tenth of a second remaining on a desperation half-court shot attempt. Hudsonville senior Maddie Peroelje then made all three free throws to pull out an improbable 47-46 win.
“That one was brutal,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, who was feeling much better Tuesday, one week later, after Haven downed visiting Zeeland West 44-33 for its third-straight victory.
“I love all of it, the great teams and big wins, but also the struggles and trying to stay strong and figure things out.”
Kowalczyk-Fulmer, 52, might be in the midst of the best coaching job in her 31-year career, guiding a team with no returning starters to a 10-4 start, including an impressive 5-2 record after the first rotation in the rugged Ottawa-Kent Conference Red.
She is doing it with a team that only goes about six or seven deep, has no one in that group taller than 6-foot and lost its starting point guard, junior Abbey Klumpel, to a season-ending knee injury during the summer.
How is she doing it?
“She teaches a team game of basketball,” explained ninth-year Grand Haven athletic director Scott Robertson, who has been involved in high school sports for 32 years. “She is more invested in her sport, her kids, her program than anyone I have ever seen.”
The defensive leader Tuesday was gritty senior guard Grace Harrison, who held Zeeland West’s top perimeter threat scoreless.
On offense, junior forward Emerson Berndt turned in a double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds. She scored 14 of those points in the second half to help the Bucs put the game away.
Berndt had the hot hand Tuesday, but in other games this season sophomore guard Gillian Sorrelle or junior forward Maddie Schopf have carried the team from outside. The inside leader is 5-11 senior center Heidi Berkey, who held her own against ZW’s 6-4 senior center Kara Bartels.
Berndt, who leads the Bucs with 12 points and five rebounds per game, said this team has a special bond with its head coach.
“Coach has established such a close relationship with all of us, and she knows how to get us going,” said Berndt, who is one of the five Haven starters who all average at least six points per game. “She’s always joking around, but getting after it at the same time.”
Haven, which is a surprising second in the O-K Red at the halfway point, starts the second half of the slate Friday at first-place and No. 3-ranked Rockford (13-1).
Kowalczyk-Fulmer, a standout player at Caledonia and then Hope College, began her coaching career at the age of 21 when she was still a senior at Hope – coaching the seventh-grade girls team at Caledonia.
She then worked five years at Hastings, including the final three as girls varsity head coach, before taking the job as a physical education teacher and varsity girls basketball coach at Grand Haven in 1997.
Kowalczyk-Fulmer and her husband, Paul, have one son, Drew, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Grand Haven who was just a toddler when the Buccaneers were enjoying their magical three-year run a decade ago.
Haven made its presence known on a statewide level in 2011, when 6-5 sophomore Abby Cole led the Bucs to a 26-1 record, with the only loss coming by a single point to Detroit Renaissance, 39-38, in a Class A Semifinal at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.
The Bucs took the final step in 2012, erasing an 18-point, third-quarter deficit as senior guard Shar’Rae Davis drove the length of the court for the game-winning layup with nine seconds remaining in a 54-53 victory over Grosse Pointe South. Haven finished 27-1, with its only loss coming early in the season against O-K Red rival East Kentwood.
GH did it again in 2013 with a perfect 28-0 record, which might have been the most impressive because the only returning starter was Cole, who would go on to an all-Big Ten volleyball career at Michigan. The Bucs committed a staggering 32 turnovers, but made up for it with 22-of-29 shooting (76 percent), in a 60-54 overtime victory over, once again, Grosse Pointe South.
“Those are the glory days, and here we are 10 years later and you realize just how special it was,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, who has also coached track at Grand Haven. “We always stayed humble and worked hard.
“Obviously, having someone like Abby Cole as the last line of defense is something special. But she had such great character and leadership, as well. I can still see her out there when things weren’t going well, and she would wrap her long arms around her teammates and tell them it was going to be OK. And it was.”
Kowalczyk-Fulmer has amassed 391 victories as a head coach, with six O-K Red titles, eight District and four Regional championships – along with the two Class A Finals wins.
“Those trophies are getting hard to come by – I’m thinking about buying one on eBay,” said Coach K, displaying the quick wit that her fellow coaches, referees and players know very well.
She works hard, but also has plenty of fun and laughs along the way, which is why she doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon – even though this school year marks her 30th year of teaching.
As Kowalczyk-Fulmer was finishing up her media obligations after the Zeeland West victory, her son – a sports junkie who has literally grown up in the Grand Haven bleachers and locker rooms – sat waiting in the hallway.
“I plan to be here until he graduates,” she said with a nod to her only child. “I love it. It’s my passion, and I’m really lucky. Grand Haven is such a great place to live and coach.
“I’m not ready to stop.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Haven girls basketball coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer talks things over with her team during a game earlier this decade. (Middle) Kowalczyk-Fulmer and son Drew accept the Class A championship trophy after the Bucs’ second-straight title win in 2013. (Top photo courtesy of the Local Sports Journal.)