By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Absolutely, Ypsilanti Arbor Prep has noticed differences playing in Class B this season after winning the Class C title a year ago.
As expected, it’s tougher. There’s structure, more athletes. The Gators still pride themselves on suffocating defense, but at times it’s hasn’t been as bothersome against some of these new opponents.
And yet, the results have been the same – if not better.
Arbor Prep entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in Class B, and it remains undefeated after handing previously-undefeated and No. 5-ranked Freeland its first and only loss 54-46 in Friday’s last Semifinal at the Breslin Center.
The Gators now have won 36 straight games and will try to finish a perfect run against No. 2 Detroit Country Day in Saturday’s 6 p.m. championship game.
“It’s our last time playing together, and we just want to make it as special as we can,” Gators senior guard Ro’zhane Wells said. “And that’s winning the state championship. There’s no other way to go out than that.”
“Like Ro’zhane said, we’ve won the state championship. What better way to go? 28-0?” senior Adrienne Anderson added. “So that’s what we’re going for, and that’s our goal.”
Two teams had that goal Friday, with the assurance the season would end for one of them. Freeland’s strengths – especially outside shooting – were almost enough to send the Falcons (26-1) on instead.
Their 46 points were the second-most Arbor Prep (27-0) has given up this season despite facing a schedule that has included Class A finalist Flushing, another Class A power in Muskegon Mona Shores and a pair of ranked Class B teams during the playoffs in No. 3 Williamston and No. 8 Ida. Only Dearborn Heights Robichaud, with 54 in a four-point District Final loss to the Gators, put up more points against them.
Freeland made nine 3-pointers on 23 tries and shot better than 40 percent in two quarters, finishing just under 40 percent from the floor for the game. Leading Falcons scorer, senior guard Jessica Piper, made 6 of 9 shots including three 3-pointers on the way to 18 points.
But Arbor Prep’s defense did make a difference when it came to possessing the ball. The Gators took advantage of 21 Freeland turnovers, while giving the ball up only 10 times.
Still, a Piper 3-pointer pulled the Falcons to within 49-46 with 2:31 to play. At 5:55, they trailed Arbor Prep by 13.
“We’re like, we’re a good 3-point shooting team. We needed to get the 3 off, and the shots started falling; they didn’t fall the rest of the game,” Piper said. “And we looked at each other and we’re down by six. And we’re like, that’s two 3s, just look to shoot. We got it down to three at the end and almost pulled it off.”
Arbor Prep made five free throws down the stretch as Freeland had two turnovers and missed two shots.
“I knew we would never give up. We came out, I think we were a little hesitant, maybe a little nervous,” Freeland coach Tom Zolinski said. “(But) this team at any point could score 20 points in five minutes, and I think that’s half the reason we didn’t give up. We knew our firepower and what we were able to do.”
Wells had 14 points and six steals to lead Arbor Prep, and Anderson and Williams both added 10 points, with Anderson grabbing eight rebounds.
There are certainly some similarities as well between this run and Arbor Prep’s last two to Breslin (the Gators made the Class C Semifinals in 2015). They aren’t fazed by the stage, the different shooting perspective and other differences that might throw off first-time finalists – which should put them on at least even footing from that perspective with a Country Day team they know plenty about from playing against and with many of those players growing up.
“The girls believe they can play against anybody,” said Arbor Prep coach (and Ro’zhane’s father) Rod Wells. “We don’t really look at the jersey of the other team. We just think we can beat anybody. The girls still don’t get the attention they deserve. But they work extra hard, and you’ve got to respect that. I’ll probably never get a group (again) that works this hard.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Arbor Prep’s Lasha Petree stops Freeland’s Jenna Gregory (11) during Friday’s Class B Semifinal. (Middle) The Gators’ Cydney Williams (20) puts pressure on a driving Alyssa Argyle.
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.)