By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Kelsey Richards is constantly compared to her older sisters, which doesn’t bother her one bit.
“They were both amazing players, so I’ll take it,” Kelsey said with her big smile, which is on display seemingly everywhere – except during her basketball games.
“I feel like it’s my time. It’s my time to show my senior leadership and my love for Christ as we play.”
Kelsey, a 6-0 senior, like older sisters Taylor and Allyson before her, is a fifth-year varsity starter for Fruitport Calvary Christian, a school of just 72 students which the Richards girls – with the help of their father and 10th-year coach Brad Richards – have transformed into a Division 4 powerhouse in West Michigan.
Fruitport Calvary has averaged 20 wins per season over the past nine years, with seven consecutive Alliance League championships and six straight MHSAA District titles. In five of those seasons, Calvary’s tournament run ended at the hands of state power Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in Regional Finals.
But last year, the Eagles flew south for Regionals and Kelsey scored 21 points as they broke through with a 49-46 victory over Mendon for the school’s first-ever Regional championship in any sport. Calvary lost in the Quarterfinals to eventual Division 4 champion Adrian Lenawee Christian.
“It’s just a real blessing,” Coach Richards explained after a lopsided victory Tuesday night over visiting Hudsonville Libertas Christian. “We put God first, family second and basketball third. This school has allowed us to do all three of those things at one time, and we are so thankful for that.”
This year, the Eagles are off to a 6-2 start, with losses coming against Division 3 opponents Muskegon Western Michigan Christian and Hart, and the most notable win 50-46 over Division 2 Central Montcalm last week at the Cornerstone University Holiday Tournament. Richards matched her jersey number with 33 points in that game.
Fruitport Calvary will be shooting for its 51st consecutive Alliance League victory when it opens conference play Friday night at Byron Center Zion Christian.
The first constant for the Eagles over the past nine years is an ultra-aggressive style of play, using relentless full-court pressure to break teams down. As a result, Calvary gets to the free-throw line often, with the goal every game to make more free throws than the other team attempts.
The second constant is the dominating play of the Richards sisters.
Taylor Richards put Calvary girls basketball on the map before graduating in 2014. She remains the school’s all-time career leader in points (2,455), rebounds (1,541) and assists (381). Taylor went on to a standout career at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and now coaches eighth-grade girls basketball at Northern Hills Middle School.
Allyson Richards had an amazing prep career of her own, graduating in 2017 as the school’s second-leading career scorer (1,951) and rebounder (1,167). She is now a junior forward for Cornerstone, but has played less than half the team’s games this season due to injuries.
Kelsey, who like her sisters has the ability to play every position on the court, is moving up the school’s record book. The two-time all-stater has scored 1,879 points and needs just 73 to surpass Allyson for second place on the school record list.
Some of Calvary’s best seasons came when the Richards sisters played together. While the three never played varsity at the same time, Taylor and Allyson played together for three years, while Allyson and Kelsey played together for two years.
Kelsey has not had a sibling on the roster for the past three years, but filling that void admirably has been 6-0 senior Lizzie Cammenga. Richards and Cammenga are the only seniors on Calvary’s 10-player roster, and both are fifth-year varsity players and returning all-staters, who can play any position based on the opponent. (Schools with fewer than 100 students may play eighth graders on high school teams, although only their statistics from grades 9-12 count toward MHSAA record book consideration.)
“This team is a joy to coach,” explained Brad Richards, who previously coached girls basketball for 12 years at Ravenna and was named The Associated Press Class C state Coach of the Year in 2002. “Lizzie and Kelsey are our leaders, but all of these girls come from great families and are self-motivated to keep getting better.”
The final piece of the Richards basketball puzzle is younger brother Bradley, a 6-foot-3 seventh grader at Calvary. Coach Richards is considering switching over to boys basketball after this season for the opportunity to coach his son.
Richards retired from teaching history at Ravenna in 2018, which gives him more time to devote to coaching, his second career as a realtor and now an unexpected “mid-life adventure” which has made him a national television figure.
Richards is one of the researchers in “The Curse of Civil War Gold,” a series which premiered on The History Channel in the spring of 2018 and has reached an estimated 24.2 million viewers.
The show theorizes that Union soldiers confiscated millions of dollars in Confederate gold and silver during the final stages of the Civil War, then carried out a plot to smuggle the loot back to Michigan using the railway system and then laundered it through the banking system. According to a lighthouse keeper's deathbed confession years later, part of the stolen Confederate treasury was put into a train car on a barge and pushed off a ferry into Lake Michigan.
“It’s been a lot of fun and people from all over come up to me and talk about it,” said Richards, who has traveled as far away as Utah and Georgia to do research. “I am grateful to be a part of this project. I've been blessed by the Lord through this mid-life adventure.”
On the court, Kelsey and her father are focused on getting better each game to try and make another postseason run.
Kelsey is much happier talking about her teammates than herself, pointing out the improvement of the team’s other three starters – junior Kyra Hamilton, sophomore Cate Anhalt and freshman McKena Wilson.
“Each of the teams I’ve played on has been very different, but I’ve been really surprised how well some of our younger girls have played this year,” said Kelsey, noting Anhalt’s improved shooting and Wilson’s ability to stay calm in pressure situations.
Kelsey does plan to break one family tradition by not going to Cornerstone University, opting instead to play basketball at Spring Arbor College, an evangelical Christian school near Jackson. Brad played basketball at Cornerstone, her mother, Joy, played volleyball there and her two older sisters played basketball – but she chose a different path.
“I felt very comfortable when I visited Spring Arbor and I really like the girls on the team and Coach (Ryan) Frost,” said Kelsey, 17, who plans to sign with Spring Arbor on Jan. 28.
But first, she is determined to make the most of her final prep basketball season and the final five months of high school, where she is one of just 14 seniors.
“I really enjoy that we are small, because we are more like a family here,” said Kelsey, who runs track in the spring. “As big as basketball is for me, I really love being a chapel leader at school and a worship leader for youth group. A lot of people know me as a basketball player, but that part of my life is really important to me.”
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) Kelsey Richards defends during a game earlier this season against Hart. (Middle) Richards works to get past a Muskegon Catholic Central defender last season. (Below) The Richards children, from left: Kelsey Richards, Allyson Richards (junior at Cornerstone), Bradley Richards (6-3 seventh grader at Fruitport Calvary Christian) and Taylor Richards (Cornerstone graduate). (Action photos courtesy of Dr. Tom Watkins; family photo courtesy of the Richards family.)
It was known as “The Barn.” And it was home to the 1972 Class D boys basketball champion, the 1973 Class D girls basketball champion and the 1982 Class D boys basketball runners-up.
The Upper Peninsula’s all-time winningest female basketball coach coached at The Barn, as did the Upper Peninsula’s all-time winningest male basketball coach. And when Ewen-Trout Creek advanced to the 2022 Division 4 Final, its roster was littered with names from E-TC’s past:
► Leading scorer Jaden Borseth’s dad played on the 1995 team that advanced to the Class D Regional Final.
► Kelsey Jilek’s dad played on the 1992 team.
► Brendan Polkky’s dad is currently an assistant coach for E-TC and played on the 1991 team that also advanced to the Class D Regional Final.
► Caden Besonen’s dad Dave starred on the 1982 state runner-up team. Caden’s uncle Brad is the E-TC head coach. And Brad’s dad, Bryan, played on the 1972 championship team.
The Barn hosted its final E-TC game in 1998 and is now owned by Gary Fors, who also played on the 1972 title team. It’s now a community gym of sorts, and many members of the 2022 team worked out there growing up.
E-TC grad Kristin Ojaniemi – an award-winning documentary film maker and photographer, and the TV producer and host of “Discovering” for 906 Outdoors – is taking a look at the history of “The Barn” as well as its ties to the 2022 team in an eight-part series called “Born in the Barn.” The first two parts are complete, and the entire series will be available to view at KristinOjaniemi.com.
I had a chance to ask Ojaniemi about the project and why it’s so special to so many people.
Kristin, how did you come up with the idea to document the history of The Barn?
The idea to document the history of The Barn and E-TC basketball developed over time. Five years ago I had a conversation with Dan Truckey of the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University, and when I told him where I went to high school, we got on the topic of basketball and how E-TC was a powerhouse and that "there must be something in the water" here. Fast forward to 2021, and I saw on Facebook some photos of the inside of The Barn and all the newspapers Gary Fors had lined the walls with, sort of like a museum. February of 2022 I realized it was 50 years since the 1972 boys state championship and 40 years since the 1982 state runner-up seasons. I like anniversaries in history and thought it would be the perfect time to do some sort of documentary. Originally my focus was Gary and The Barn and more of the 70s and 80s boys and girls seasons, but once the 2022 boys started advancing in the tournament, that obviously changed.
What did the 2022 team’s run to the Finals mean to the players from the ’72 and ’82 teams?
The 2022 run meant a lot to the players of '72 and '82 because many of those boys are sons, grandsons, great-nephews of those guys. Bryan Besonen of the '72 team is coach Brad Besonen's father. Many of them traveled to every tournament game, and watching the 2022 season brought back memories of their glory days. They're definitely very proud of the 2022 team and the tradition that E-TC has continued through the years. Watching them watch those games was just as fun as watching the court. The 2022 team's run to the Finals meant a lot to the whole community. So many others traveled all the way to Lansing to cheer them on, and there is just a ton of pride in this team. I went to the banner unveiling a few weeks ago, and it was a huge crowd at the game to watch those few seconds of history being made.
What is your history with The Barn?
I graduated from Ewen-Trout Creek in 2000. We were in the "new" school then, but I spent four years – seventh-10th grade – in the "old" school, which had so much more character than the new one! I did play basketball seventh-10th – junior high and junior varsity. I was a benchwarmer most of those years. I loved the game but didn't spend any time offseason playing or practicing like others. I was also a cheerleader those years too, and if you look closely at one of the newspaper photos from the last game in the Barn, I'm in the background. Ha ha! This was back when girls basketball was in the fall and boys in the winter, so you could do both. As others in the documentary mention, The Barn was also where you hung out at lunch, and gym class was in there, and homecoming activities. Filming in there brought back a lot of memories.
What did Nancy Osier (U.P.’s winningest female basketball coach) and Tom Caudill (U.P.’s winningest male basketball coach) think made The Barn such a difficult place for opposing teams to play?
Thinking back to Nancy and Tom's interviews, I think the difficulty for other teams really boiled down to the atmosphere and the E-TC fans and that intimidation factor. E-TC had the ultimate homecourt advantage in The Barn, and their players spent hours upon hours practicing on that floor. And the school's history and tradition of rarely losing a home game is also intimidating.
There’s obviously a lot of family ties from the 2022 team to earlier teams – and it was the 50th anniversary of the ’72 win – did they feel more pressure along the way because of that?
I think the 2022 boys had this feeling that they wanted to one-up their grandfathers/fathers. I think it was Kelsey Jilek that told his grandfather, George Hardes (1972), that they had one more game in their schedule so they could potentially have a better record if they won all their games. But none of them came out and mentioned that the anniversary put pressure on them, but I’m sure it was there. They set out to win it all from the beginning and put the work in, and it paid off. There are a lot of parallels in these winning seasons.
When will the next part of the series be released?
Part 3, I should have done by the end of February. Part 3 focuses on the 1973 girls state champs; 1973 was the first year there was a state final for girls basketball after Title IX, and E-TC won the Class D title. And then I plan to release each part every two months with the final, Part 8, done by the end of 2023. This is just a fun hobby/personal project, I guess you'd say, so I only have so much time to dedicate to it after all my "real" work.
(PHOTOS of "The Barn" courtesy of Kristin Ojaniemi.)