Built for this Moment, Western Arrives

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

January 16, 2018

McKenna Walker was a fourth grader when her dad, Tim, returned for his second stint as coach of the Bay City Western girls basketball team.

At that point, she didn’t realize what she and her friends were building. She simply was having fun playing basketball.

But her dad saw the future of his program.

“They were successful at a young age,” Tim Walker said. “I could see the athletic ability. I could see they were competitive and willing to learn at a young age. You could kind of see it coming with putting these pieces together.”

Now, as McKenna enters the second half of her senior season, she and her teammates are proving her father right. The Warriors are coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1998-99, and were 9-0 heading into Tuesday night’s matchup with rival Midland. They’re ranked No. 6 in Class A by The Associated Press, and No. 8 by the Detroit Free Press.

“We have some really strong leadership with my daughter, McKenna – she’s been a big part of the turnaround since her freshman year,” said Tim Walker, who took over the program five games into the 2009-10 season, and also coached the Warriors from 1994-2004. “Also, we have kids in her class that have stuck with it and have been very committed since third and fourth grade. We have a strong group of juniors that have also been committed. They’re all competitive athletes, and I’ve been blessed to have kids who are dominant in other sports and have really meshed well together, accept their roles and play hard. It’s been very enjoyable to be a part of.”

This season, Bay City Western is winning with an uptempo style, sometimes driven by a five-guard lineup. McKenna Walker, who signed with Northwood University in November, leads that charge. She averaged 19 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a junior, and started this season with 1,120 career points. In a recent game against Saginaw, she set a career high with 39 points.

She is one of two four-year players on the team, as Kylie Lukowski also has been playing varsity ball since her freshman year. Lukowski stands at just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but she finds a home in the post when it’s asked of her.

“I try my hardest because I’m not very tall, obviously,” she said. “So I just have to push them around a little bit and see if it bothers them at all.”

Despite the lack of size, things seem to be working, as the Warriors are keeping teams off balance and taking advantage of the matchups their smaller lineup creates.

“Let’s just say if there were a shot clock, we would not have a hard time getting a shot off,” Tim Walker said. “It’s not that we’re making them all, but we’re playing uptempo and forcing turnovers.”

The hope is that style can translate to victories in the postseason, which have been elusive for Bay City Western. The school won District titles in 1997 and 1998, but none since.

“(Winning a District title) would just be so cool,” McKenna Walker said. “It’s been one of my goals since coming in, because it’s been such a long time, and I just wanted to change that.”

When looking at the competition for a District title, one easily can forgive the Warriors’ current drought.

This season, like most, the bracket includes Bay City Central, Midland, Midland Dow, Mount Pleasant and Saginaw Heritage, which would be a tough path for any team.

“As these kids (were) developing at a young age, we’ve been having to set the bar awfully high,” Tim Walker said. “Because the Midlands have always been good, the Saginaw teams have always been good. You really have to get the kids to buy into the offseason work and just work hard.”

Two seasons ago, Western found itself leading Saginaw Heritage at halftime in a District Semifinal. Heritage came back to win the game, however, and eventually advanced to the Regional Final.

It was a tough loss, but also served as a confidence builder and teaching moment for the young Warriors.

“We definitely learned that every team is beatable,” McKenna Walker said. “Even if we’re playing a team that we’re supposed to beat, you never know, because every team is beatable. You never want to think that it’s UConn playing you. We’re all high school girls. We’re all the same age. Anything can happen.”

The Saginaw Valley League helps prepare the Warriors for this postseason gauntlet, although it’s preparing everyone else in the District as well. The league includes the six teams from the District, plus Davison, Flint Carman-Ainsworth, Bay City John Glenn, Flint Powers Catholic, Saginaw, Saginaw Arthur Hill, Flint and Lapeer all forming one division this winter.

The schedule can be a grind, but it also helps the team stay focused on the day-to-day routine needed to be successful and reach the goals it set at the beginning of the season – and the promise Tim Walker saw in this group so long ago.

“What I have noticed is, mentally, each night they’re in a pretty good place right now,” Tim Walker said. “They just have a really good grasp on what it takes to play with effort, team play and execution.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at paulcostanzo3@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bay City Western’s McKenna Walker gets to the basket during Bay City Western’s opener against Frankenmuth. (Middle) The Warriors defend the post against the Eagles. (Photos by Chip DeGrace.)

Decade After Title Trips, 'Coach K' Just as Driven to Coach Up Grand Haven Contenders

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

February 1, 2023

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.”

Kowalczyk-Fulmer and son Drew accept the Class A championship trophy after the Bucs’ second-straight title win in 2013. 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 kendra.tom@gmail.com 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.)