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 [email protected] 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.)
Hemlock and Rockford's drives to their first Girls Basketball Finals championships in March were paced in part by some of the strongest 3-point shooting in MHSAA history.
The Division 1 title-winning Rams connected on 243 3-pointers – third-most all-time – over 29 games in tying the single-season wins record while finishing 28-1. Grace Lyons, a senior this fall, made the single-season individual list with 70 3-pointers.
The Huskies won in Division 3 having connected on 229 3-pointers over 29 games, seventh-most in MHSAA history, on 678 attempts, which ranks 12th on that list. Chloe Watson made the single-season list with 75 3-pointers, and Regan Finkbeiner did as well connecting on 67.
Watson also made the career 3-pointers list with 224 and Finkbeiner with 194, and 2017 Hemlock graduate Samantha Krauss was added for 65 3-pointers as a junior in 2015-16 and 188 for her career. Additionally, past Hemlock standout Karli Herrington was added for her 317 rebounds in 2012-13, and Peyton Apsey was added for 144 steals in 2010-11.
Watson is continuing her career at Mid-Michigan College, and Finkbeiner is playing softball at Madonna. Herrington went on to play at Central Michigan and Northwood, Krauss played at Ferris State and Apsey played at Oakland.
Read on for more recent record book additions for girls basketball:
Hudsonville’s Maddie Petroelje joined the list of top 3-point shooters in MHSAA history as a junior in 2021-22, when she connected on 70 (in just 147 attempts) to make the single-season list. She graduated this spring 16th on the career list as well with 226 3-pointers in 512 attempts over 92 games and four seasons. She is continuing at Loyola (Ill.).
Byron Center’s Avery Zeinstra also finished her career among those top 3-point shooters. She also made the single-season list with 70 in 147 attempts as a freshman in 2018-19, and she capped her career in 2021-22 with 206 3-pointers (tied for 20th-most) in 502 attempts over four seasons and 80 career games. She is continuing at Grand Valley State.
Hannah Thompson was best known for her soccer scoring at Schoolcraft. But she’s made a second MHSAA record book for her 15 steals in a Jan. 28, 2022, basketball win over Galesburg-Augusta. She’s continuing her soccer career at Eastern Michigan.
Baraga’s run to the Division 4 Semifinals in 2022 received big boosts from Corina Jahfetson’s 3-point shooting and Reide Osterman’s defense. Jahfetson was added to the record book with 66 3-pointers over 25 games, including nine in a game against Carney Nadeau – when Baraga as a team made the record book with 14 3-pointers total. Osterman made the record book with 153 steals. Jahfetson graduated this spring, and Osterman is playing at Northern Michigan.
Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy’s Audrey Mileski had one of the busiest games at the free throw line in MHSAA history Dec. 14, 2021. She made 23 free throws – third-most in a single game – against Wyoming Kelloggsville. Mileski graduated this spring.
Sophia Bussell had set Monroe’s single-game 3-pointers record of eight as a freshman two seasons ago, and she bettered it last Dec. 13 by tying for the 10th-most in MHSAA history. She made 10-pointers including the game-winner of a 58-56 victory over Ypsilanti Lincoln. A little less than 10 months earlier, Adrian Lenawee Christian then-senior Kylie Summer also made 10, on 17 attempts, during a 57-34 win over Lansing Christian on Feb. 24, 2022.
Lydia Meredith enjoyed a memorable senior season for Portland St. Patrick in 2021-22, finishing her four-year varsity career with 453 steals over just 80 games. She also was added for drilling 17 free throws in 22 attempts against Fowler. She plays now at Saginaw Valley State.
Gabby Piepho got off to a fast start at Howell as a freshman last season, and at a record-setting pace at the free-throw line. She made 93 of 107 attempts over 25 games, for an .869 percentage that made the single-season list. That included a string of 47 straight free throws that ranks as the second-longest in MHSAA history. As a team, Howell tied for sixth all-time with 301 free throws over 25 games, on 439 attempts.
Kent City’s Lexie Bowers reached the single-season 3-pointers list for the second time last season, connecting on 72 of 233 tries over 26 games (after making 77 as a junior), and finished her four-season varsity career 16th on that 3-pointers list with 225 in 693 attempts over 99 games. She’s continuing her career at Northwood. Kent City as a team also reached the single-season 3-pointers made and attempted lists again, ranking fourth with 753 attempts and tying for eighth all-time by connecting on 202.
Posen then-junior Faith Cousins earned a par of record book entries during 2021-22 for assists. Her 16 in a District Final win on March 4, 2022, remain tied for fifth-most in one game, and she finished with 165 over 22 games for the season. She’s set to begin her softball career at Alma College.
Niles Brandywine went over 20 wins again this past season, finishing 21-3, and again the 3-pointer was a key tool in that pursuit. Brandywine made the record book with back-to-back games of 13 3-pointers to close the regular season, and finished with 175 3-pointers in 592 attempts over 23 games (with one won by forfeit).
Greenville’s Megan Leslie averaged more than two 3-pointers a game during her four-season varsity career, making the record list with 153 total over 76 games through graduation this spring. She’s continuing her career at Alma College.
Successful 3-point shooting played a major role in Saline finishing 21-4 with league and District titles last winter. The Hornets attempted 704 3-pointers – ninth-most all-time for one season – and connected on 191, which is 12th on that list. They made a season-high 14 against Ypsilanti Lincoln on Nov. 29 to make the single-game list.
Marcellus senior Brooklyn VanTilburg enjoyed a big finish to her high school career last winter, making the record book with 16 blocked shots in a game against Centreville and 135 blocks total for the season. She’ll continue at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Kennedy Gustafson made headlines last winter as a sophomore and earned a pair of record listings for her rebounding. She grabbed 26 in a March 3 District Final win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, and she finished with 376 rebounds over 25 games for the season.
PHOTO Hemlock's Regan Finkbeiner, left, follows through on a free throw attempt during last season's Division 3 Final, and Rockford's Grace Lyons launches the game-winning 3-pointer in Division 1.