By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Class A – made up of the largest high schools in Michigan – also has the most star power to offer this weekend at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena in Grand Rapids.
This season’s Miss Basketball plus two more finalists, not to mention some of the likely contenders in 2019, all will take the floor during Friday’s Semifinals and Saturday’s championship game.
And much is at stake, of course. Three of these teams have won MHSAA titles, but none since at least 2010. The fourth will compete during the final weekend of the season for the first time.
Class A Semifinals – Friday
Grosse Pointe North (20-5) vs. Saginaw Heritage (25-1), noon
East Lansing (25-0) vs. Wayne Memorial (22-4), 2 p.m.
Class A Final – Saturday, 12:15 p.m.
Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Class D and Class A). All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit and streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports Go! app. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a glance at all four semifinalists. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.)
Record/rank: 25-0, No. 2
League finish: First in Capital Area Activities Conference Blue
Coach: Rob Smith, 16th season (record N/A)
Championship history: Class A champion 2010, runner-up 2008.
Best wins: 63-45 over No. 8 Muskegon in Quarterfinal, 54-40 over No. 6 Coldwater in Regional Semifinal, 50-38 (District Final) and 52-51 over No. 4 DeWitt, 63-43 over Class B honorable mention Williamston.
Players to watch: Jaida Hampton, 5-11 sr. F (15 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 57 3-pointers); Aaliyah Nye, 5-11 soph. F (13 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
Outlook: After getting stopped in Quarterfinals three times this decade, East Lansing broke through to make its first Semifinal since the championship season of 2010. The Trojans have won four of five postseason games by at least 12 points. Hampton is the recently honored Miss Basketball Award winner, and she’s got plenty of help not only from Aaliyah Nye, but also senior guards Aazhenii Nye (11.7 ppg) and Amelia McNutt (9.5 ppg), among others. All four of those players also had connected on at least 24 3-pointers entering this week.
GROSSE POINTE NORTH
Record/rank: 20-5, unranked
League finish: Tied for first in Macomb Area Conference Red.
Coach: Gary Bennett, 35th season (576-221)
Championship history: Class A champion 2008.
Best wins: 47-44 over Detroit Martin Luther King in Quarterfinal, 53-51 (Regional Semifinal) and 66-63 over No. 9 Macomb Dakota, 44-32 over St. Clair Shores Lakeview in District Semifinal.
Players to watch: Julia Ayrault, 6-2 jr. G/F (19 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.4 spg); Christina Braker, 5-9 soph. F (6.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg).
Outlook: North will be returning to the Semifinals for the first time since the title-winning season of 2008, when it defeated East Lansing in the championship game. Ayrault is considered a contender for next season’s Miss Basketball Award and helped her team navigate what annually is one of the state’s strongest leagues. Lakeview (20-2) was another league champion North had to get past along the way. This could be a preview of next season as well; the Norsemen have only one senior.
Record/rank: 25-1, No. 3
League finish: First in Saginaw Valley League.
Coach: Vonnie DeLong, fifth season (105-14)
Championship history: Class A champion 2002, runner-up 2001.
Best wins: 63-40 (Regional Final) and 60-44 over No. 7 Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 59-49 over Class B No. 1 Detroit Country Day, 51-35 over Class B No. 5 Freeland.
Players to watch: Moira Joiner, 5-9 jr. G (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.2 apg); Shine Strickland-Gills, 6-1 jr. F (12.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg).
Outlook: Heritage has won 20 or more games the last four seasons and made the Semifinals again to go with its 2015 appearance. The Hawks’ only loss was by a basket in overtime to reigning Class C champ Detroit Edison, and no other opponent got closer than 10 with wins as well over Clarkston (20-5), Hartland (20-6), Midland Dow (17-6) and Bay City Western (17-4). Joiner is another highly-regarded junior who could be in the Miss Basketball conversation in 2019. Four players average at least seven points per game, with senior guard Jessica Bicknell also in double digits at 10.8.
Record/rank: 22-4, No. 10
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association Black.
Coach: Jarvis Mitchell, fourth season (55-34)
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 54-44 (Quarterfinal) and 45-40 over Hartland, 50-46 over Howell, 73-70 over Class B No. 2 Detroit Country Day.
Players to watch: Camree’ Clegg, 5-5 sr. G (23.7 ppg, 6.4 apg); Jeanae Terry, 5-10 jr. G (Statistics not submitted).
Outlook: Wayne went 0-20 in Mitchell’s first season, then won a league title his second, league and District championships his third and added the Regional title for the first time in program history this winter. Clegg was a Miss Basketball Award finalist and has led the Zebras to double-digit wins in every postseason game. The losses came twice to Detroit Edison – including by just two points the second time –Williamston early when it was full strength and considered a Class B favorite and Ohio semifinalist Toledo Rogers (25-3).
PHOTO: Saginaw Heritage's Moira Joiner (4) works to get past a Flint Carman-Ainsworth defender during last week's Regional Final victory. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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 email@example.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.)