Heritage Girls Pushing for Breslin Return

January 6, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Saginaw Heritage girls basketball coach Vonnie DeLong doesn’t start a senior this season and has three freshmen playing prominent roles.

But she also has three starters back from the lineup that made the Class A Semifinals a year ago – and the Hawks' sights are set on contending again this March.

Heritage is the Applebee’s Team of the Month for December thanks to a 6-0 start that included a key Saginaw Valley League North win over Midland and ended with a 39-29 victory over reigning Class B champion Detroit Country Day in the marquee game of the Motor City Roundball Classic.

The Hawks finished 22-4 last season and 16-5 in 2013-14, their first under DeLong, who was part of three MHSAA championship teams as a player at Carrollton from 1979-1982 and coached Saginaw Arthur Hill’s Class A runner-up team in 1998. Heritage improved to 7-0 on Tuesday with a 38-10 win over Mount Pleasant and has won 13 of its last 14 games dating to last season.

“The expectations from the kids’ perspective are very high,” DeLong said. “They want to win. They want to get back to the Breslin. With as many kids as we had coming back, and with what we added, it’s a realistic goal for them – but they know it's going to be hard to do.”

Heritage has beaten all of its opponents but one by at least 10 points, downing Flushing by only nine, 36-27, on opening night. Five of seven players who saw the floor in the Semifinal loss to DeWitt last season are back, including returning starters Jaela Richardson, Haley Brefka and Courtney McInerney. Richardson is a sophomore; Brefka and McInerney are juniors. Senior center Jenna Falkenberg and sophomore guard Jessi Bicknell both also played at Breslin last March.

But the lineup, while experienced, is paced in scoring by a pair of freshmen. Mallory McCartney and Moira Joiner lead the balanced offensive effort averaging 9.6 and 8.3 points per game, respectively, with Joiner adding 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and three steals per game and McCartney grabbing 2.5 steals per contest. 

Richardson grabs 7.2 rebounds to go with 7.3 points per game, while Bicknell averages 6.4 points and 2.5 steals and McInerney grabs six rebounds per game.

The Hawks also are giving up only 23 points on average. No opponent has scored 30. Country Day's 29 points were their fewest since scoring 30 in a Quarterfinal loss to Flint Powers Catholic in 2013.

“Country Day is so good, and every year; they’ve just been phenomenal,” said DeLong, who also coached at Saginaw Valley State University and played at Notre Dame and Michigan. “For our kids to get a win like that, against such a good team, it’s huge. Especially for the young kids.”

Past Teams of the Month:
November: Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard volleyball Report
October: Benton Harbor football – Report

September: Mason and Okemos boys soccer – Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Heritage's Jessi Bicknell pushes the ball upcourt with Jaela Richardson calling for the pass. (Middle) Heritage got past Country Day, 39-29, to cap December. (Photos courtesy of Chris Bicknell.)

Decade After Title Trips, 'Coach K' Just as Driven to Coach Up Grand Haven Contenders

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

February 1, 2023

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.”

Kowalczyk-Fulmer and son Drew accept the Class A championship trophy after the Bucs’ second-straight title win in 2013. 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 kendra.tom@gmail.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.)