By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Bailey Baker plans to graduate from Eaton Rapids this spring with 16 varsity letters won in four sports. Like others on her basketball team, she’s had plenty of success on others as well.
But there’s something special about what the Greyhounds have accomplished this week during the longest run in school hoops history.
Eaton Rapids played in its first Class B Semifinal on Friday, and will try for its first MHSAA championship Saturday night after downing reigning runner-up and No. 9-ranked Flint Powers Catholic 46-36 at the Breslin Center.
The Greyhounds – an honorable mention in the final Associated Press Class B poll – have eliminated three top-10 teams during the tournament, including also No. 6 Ypsilanti Arbor Prep in the Quarterfinal and No. 9 Olivet in the District Final. And they continued another impressive postseason streak as well – they’ve beaten all of their playoff opponents by at least 10 points.
“We all have side sports, but this is the one we’re all together,” said Baker, who also next weekend will receive an MHSAA Scholar-Athlete Award. “We’ve wanted this forever, and to finally have this opportunity is amazing.
“Win or lose, it’s going to be my favorite high school memory.”
Eaton Rapids can make this historical run even sweeter by getting past top-ranked and undefeated Grand Rapids South Christian in the Final at 6 p.m. Saturday.
It’s unwise to count the Greyhounds (22-5) out.
They’ve had strong teams during coach Willis Whitmyer’s 15 seasons, but the best usually ran into frequent championship contenders DeWitt, Portland or others down the road.
Eaton Rapids also is playing with some emotional edge. All five starters are seniors, and there are eight total. Whitmyer said longtime assistant Richard Stoken will be leaving the program after 13 seasons, and Whitmyer said he’s also not sure if he’ll be back next winter.
“We’ve had five teams I thought could’ve gotten here in my tenure, but we found some way to screw it up or the other team took it from us,” Whitmyer said. “This is huge for us. It’s huge for the community. They’re wrapped up in it, and they should be. They’re a huge part of it.”
The latest stunning performance began with a 14-2 run during Friday’s first five minutes. The Greyhounds carried an eight-point lead into the final three minutes of the first half.
But Powers was not to go that quietly, especially with a lineup filled with contributors from last season’s championship game run. The Chargers (23-3) gained a one-point lead heading into the final minute of the third quarter.
It was short-lived. Eaton Rapids senior center Allie Ditmer scored at the buzzer to give the Greyhounds back the advantage, and they never trailed again.
“We battled back, but I think we started to run out of gas a little bit. I think battling back took a toll on us,” Powers coach Thom Staudacher said.
“It definitely hurts. We’re usually on the other end of the stick.”
Eaton Rapids kept Powers’ trio of senior leading scorers to 19 points, down from their combined average of 33 per game. The Greyhounds also outrebounded the Chargers 38-22, thanks in large part to Dittmer’s 14 boards to go with a game-high 15 points.
Baker provided another little surprise as well. A 54-percent free-throw shooter, she connected on 11 of 12 attempts for the majority of her 13 total points.
“Just being a senior, and with how much we wanted it this year, rather than getting me more nervous it made me more calm,” Baker said of going to the line. “I should be taking those free throws. I’m a senior now. I need to have that leadership.”
Powers will graduate six seniors who helped return the program to the state’s elite. Sara Ruhstorfer and sophomore Francesca Coury led Friday with eight points, while senior Michela Coury had 10 rebounds.
PHOTOS: (Top) Eaton Rapids’ Bailey Baker pushes past Powers’ Michela Coury during Friday’s Semifinal. (Middle) Coury makes her way to the basket despite being defended closely.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Flint Powers trailed Eaton Rapids from the beginning of the game until Ally Haran makes a midcourt steal and converts it into a basket to tie the score at 26-26. (2) After her team fell behind in the final minute of the third quarter, Eaton Rapids' Allie Dittmer scores at the buzzer to put the Greyhounds on top to stay against Flint Powers.
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.)