By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — The chant "U.P. power" isn't just a catchy phrase that rocks arenas whenever a school from the Upper Peninsula reaches the final round of an MHSAA tournament.
To the Calumet girls' basketball team, it had real meaning on Saturday.
The Copper Kings huddled in their hotel around a television to watch the 10 a.m. Class D Final in which St. Ignace from just north of the Mackinac Bridge rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit to beat Pittsford in overtime.
One U.P. team brought home a championship and another was inspired to do the same six hours later.
Unranked Calumet won its first MHSAA girls basketball championship, shaking off an early nine-point deficit to beat fifth-ranked Flint Hamady, 57-49, in the Class C Final on Saturday at the Breslin Center.
Hamady had leads of 17-8 and 19-11 during the first two minutes of the second quarter before Calumet got back in the game on the strength of its 3-point shooting. It wasn't as epic a comeback as St. Ignace's record-setting performance, but the game was on the verge of getting away from the Copper Kings against a talented Hamady team that has won three MHSAA titles.
"We were able to sit in our hotel room this morning and enjoy that St. Ignace game," first-year Calumet coach Jeff Twardzik said. "Hat's off to them and congratulations. They helped us mentally, like big-time. When they went down, we thought, 'Oh, no. This is a U.P. team and we're behind them.' When they chipped away at that and came back and showed how gritty they were, they gave us a lot coming into this game. We can do this. We talked to these kids about the ups and downs of a basketball game and we have to stay consistent."
Calumet's victory gave the U.P. two MHSAA girls basketball champions for the first time in the 42-season history of the tournament. It's happened only four times in boys basketball, the last in 1957 when Negaunee and Chassell won titles.
The initial inspiration for this unlikely championship came many years earlier, when six of Calumet's seniors played on a third-grade team coached by Twardzik.
"Ever since third grade, he said this group would win a state championship this year," said senior guard Alexis Rowe, whose 3-point shooting barrage in the second quarter settled down the Copper Kings.
It no doubt made the 500-mile drive home much sweeter for the Copper Kings, who left town at 9 a.m. Monday to play a Quarterfinal game on Tuesday in Petoskey. They practiced in Gaylord on Wednesday before heading to East Lansing that night to play the next day at Michigan State.
"I've been through this experience before in volleyball," said 5-foot-10 Calumet senior Ellen Twardzik, the daughter of the head coach. "You pack for a week before the Quarterfinals and hope to make it to the Finals. We've lost three years in a row in the Quarterfinals. You have to expect the best. You pack all your gear and all your faith."
All-stater Jalisha Terry had 12 of Hamady's first 17 points, as the Hawks got out to a 17-8 lead with 7:04 left in the second quarter. Calumet responded by going 5 for 9 from 3-point range the rest of the quarter, with Rowe hitting three shots from beyond the arc.
Rowe finished with a season-high 22 points, going 4 for 7 on 3-pointers. She came in averaging 1.8 3-pointers a game.
"I know I'm not a 3-point shooter," Rowe said. "I'm more of an inside shooter. When I feel like I'm going, I know I'm going."
An 8-0 run gave Calumet its first lead at 24-23 late in the first half. After four straight Hamady points, a 3-pointer by Rowe with two seconds left in the second quarter created a 27-27 halftime tie.
Hamady's last lead came with 2:50 left in the third quarter when a 3-point play by Terry put the Hawks ahead, 34-33. Calumet led 37-36 going into the fourth quarter, then opened up some breathing room by starting the final period with a 9-0 run. Two free throws by Leah Kiilunen with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter gave Calumet its biggest lead at 46-36.
Hamady was able to score off turnovers to get back in the game, cutting the Copper Kings' advantage to 47-44 on two free throws by Sasha Penn with 1:52 remaining.
Calumet came up with two huge rebounds off of its own missed free throws, the first by Terilynne Budreau after Abby Bjorn went 1 for 2 from the line and the next by Twardzik after Clara Loukus went 1 for 2. Calumet outrebounded Hamady, 42-29.
"It was more of a mentality that I'm going to get that and you're not going to stop me," said Twardzik, who had eight of her 11 rebounds on the offensive glass.
A 3-pointer by Deajah Cofield got Hamady within 55-49 with 53 seconds left, but the Hawks didn't score again.
"It's still been a good season," Hamady coach Keith Smith said. "We would've still loved to have finished on top. The girls have nothing to be ashamed of."
Terry, a junior guard, finished with 26 points.
"I'm taking each loss as a lesson to be learned," she said.
Before this season, Calumet had won only one Regional championship, losing 57-43 to Mount Pleasant in the 1977 Class B Quarterfinals.
"It's just going to breed more success," said coach Twardzik, who led the junior varsity team before this season. "These kids, even before we did this, the enthusiasm they are giving back to our community. In the third through sixth grades in the elementary program, we have 81 young ladies coming out from a small town. It has everything to do with these guys. They give up every Saturday for these young women to come in and learn basketball and have fun along the way. It's going to mean a ton. I hope we can keep this ball rolling."
Calumet finished 24-2, its two losses coming to rival Houghton, which was a Class B Regional finalist.
Hamady finished 26-2.
PHOTOS: (Top) Calumet coach Jeff Twardzik holds the MHSAA championship trophy up to his players Saturday. (Middle) Calumet’s Alexis Rowe works to get past Hamady’s Jalisha Terry.
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.)