EAST LANSING — Though it may very well look like a fun play on words, Grass Lake girls basketball coach Andrea Cabana has established quite a culture in the small town located just east of Jackson.
And it’s really beginning to pay off.
“It’s a grass-root, fundamental approach to changing the overall culture of the program,” she said. “We’re very in-tune to the younger kids in the Junior Warriors (program), throughout the middle school to JV and varsity. It’s a full program effort to keep everyone involved.”
On Friday, she and her Grass Lake team took another step in keeping everyone involved, capturing the school’s first girls basketball state championship. The Warriors overcame an early seven-point deficit and held off a late charge by Kent City for a 52-50 victory in the Division 3 Final at the Breslin Center.
Trailing by 10 points with just more than five minutes remaining in the game, Kent City went on a 10-2 run to nearly dissolve Grass Lake’s lead. Seniors Kenzie Bowers and Jenna Harrison hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get their team within four points at 46-40. After a Lauren Pongracz layup put it back to a six-point advantage for the Warriors, Harrison hit another 3 and Bowers hit one of two free throws to make it a 46-44 game, in favor of Grass Lake.
The two teams would trade baskets before Grass Lake junior Lexus Bargesser hit a pair of free throws with 35 seconds remaining to give her team a four-point lead. She added two more with 10 seconds left to essentially seal the victory for her team.
“I feel so proud of our team and how we pulled through and didn’t let the pressure get to us,” Bargesser said. “Truly, this is the best thing that any basketball player could imagine happening to them. To be able to go and say you won a state championship is truly such a blessing.”
Kent City entered the game unbeaten at 21-0 and jumped out to early leads of 16-9 and 21-17 thanks in part to its 3-point shooting. The Eagles shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 11 of their 28 attempts.
They also played well defensively early on, keeping Grass Lake’s two leading scorers, Bargesser and Abrie Cabana, in check.
“The girls executed the game plan absolutely perfectly,” Kent City head coach Scott Carlson said. ”We wanted to take away (Bargesser) and (Cabana) and we did that in the first quarter, the first half really. But they had some players hit some shots that we were going to make them shoot.”
Bargesser finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Cabana had 10 points to go along with her five rebounds. Junior Gabrielle Lutchka hit four 3-pointers and scored all 14 of her points in the first half.
Harrison led Kent City with 16 points, while Bowers chipped in 13.
“We had a great season,” Carlson said. “These girls played absolutely fantastic. They overcame a lot and worked their tails off all offseason on their own when we couldn’t get together. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
For Grass Lake, the championship is a culmination of five years of growth in the program, a program which Coach Cabana took over five years ago. The Warriors faced one of the toughest schedules in the state this season, which helped prepare them for Friday.
“We intentionally had a very tough schedule this year,” said the coach, who now has a 95-18 record in five years with the program. “Our philosophy is we want to see the best. We want to see how good we are. We want to be pushed to our limits. Teams like that will expose every weakness that you have. So we were able to work on the things that needed to be adjusted before big games like this.”
Grass Lake also captured its first Regional title this year, having fallen just short a couple of times under Cabana.
“Our program has definitely been on the rise the past couple of years,” Lutchka said. “We had a team make it to the Regional Final and (it) ended up not winning, so we’ve been trying to get past that point. Every year, we’ve gotten better and better and better.”
And this year, the Warriors reached the basketball summit.
“It’s huge for the girls within the program, something to build on and keep focusing on,” Cabana said. “It’s huge for the district. We’ve never won a basketball state championship at Grass Lake, and I think it’s huge for the community. We’ve had people who graduated a long time ago show up and give us their support. The amount of people who have reached out wishing us luck is astronomical. It will (someday) become a basketball town. We’re working on it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Grass Lake's Lexus Bargesser (1) tries to get a hand on a shot during Saturday's Division 3 Final at Breslin Center. (Middle) Kent City's Lexie Bowers (3) makes her move around the arc with Amber Boomer defending. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)