Keyser's Final Mission: Lead Bucs Into Title Mix

January 9, 2019

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Alli Keyser wore a big smile coming out of the locker room Tuesday night, as if she just had completed a career night.

In reality, the Grand Haven senior point guard was coming off one of her worst statistical nights in memory, scoring seven points (on 3-of-16 shooting) with six assists and four steals.

But the smile was a direct result of the Buccaneers’ 44-30 win over neighboring and Ottawa-Kent Conference Red rival Holland West Ottawa, which upped their record to a perfect 7-0 on the season.

“At this point in my career, I am just happy when we win,” explained the 5-7 Keyser, who started all 22 games for Haven as a freshman and has been the team’s starting point guard since. “I was off tonight, but other people stepped up and made up for it, which is great. We are going to need all of us to play well if we want to make a run.”

Keyser’s individual legacy at Grand Haven is already well-established.

Keyser, who committed to play basketball at Northwood University the summer before her junior year, broke her high school’s all-time steals record last month, besting the total achieved by 2003 graduate Julie Henderson. Keyser is also on pace to break Henderson’s all-time assists record.

As for scoring, Keyser recently moved past Abby Cole into fifth all-time in school history. If Keyser averages about 11 points per game the rest of the season, she will pass a “who’s who” of former Buccaneers greats – specifically Alex Law, Maggie Dwyer, Allison Miller and Emma Veach – and leave as the school’s all-time leading scorer as well.

“The ironic thing is that Ally is going to leave here with all of these individual records, but she is the definition of a true team player,” said 21st-year Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. “She is the consummate point guard, always looking to set up her teammates and help them get better. She is an incredibly talented player, but she’s a better leader.”

Keyser has two specific goals for her senior year: win an O-K Red title and then make a long tournament run.

Grand Haven won back-to-back Class A championships in 2012 and 2013, but since then the Bucs have not been able to advance out of Districts – running into roadblocks of Muskegon Mona Shores (led by 2017 Miss Basketball Jordan Walker) and more recently Muskegon High.

This could be the year the Bucs break through, but it won’t be easy with two of the most athletic teams in the state standing in their way.

In the conference, Haven has finished second behind East Kentwood the past two years. The Falcons are loaded once again led by backcourt stars Mauriya Barnes and Alexis McCully.

In Districts, the Bucs lost by one point to Muskegon last year, and the Big Reds appear to be even better this winter with senior point guard and Michigan State commit Alyza Winston. As fate would have it, Grand Haven will play Muskegon on the opening night of the Class A District at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer.

“We have a chance with this group to do some special things,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, who is assisted by Katie Erickson and Norm Greene. “The problem is we have to beat some great teams to achieve our goals. Right now, we really have to get a lot better in order to do that. Fortunately, the season is a marathon and not a sprint.”

All three of those teams – Grand Haven, East Kentwood and Muskegon – are likely to be ranked in the top five when the first state Associated Press girls basketball rankings are released next week.

As has been the case for the past four years, the Bucs’ offense is keyed by Keyser.

Keyser, who also happens to be the leader and playmaker for Grand Haven’s soccer team, possesses the speed, ball-handling ability and poise to get the ball up the court against pressure from the likes of East Kentwood and Muskegon.

From there, the Buccaneers can hurt teams with their size inside. Seniors Esther Byington (6-3) and Kelly Olthof (6-1), who both missed most of their junior seasons with injuries, are back and healthy and are a formidable 1-2 punch on the interior. Both will play basketball next year at the Division II college level, Byington at Northern Michigan and Olthof at Lake Superior State.

Haven’s imposing post presence opens up plenty of 3-point shooting opportunities for junior Jolee Houle and senior Anna Strom.

Houle was on fire Tuesday night, burying five 3-pointers en route to a game-high 21 points. Olthof had a strong game inside with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, with a team-high nine rebounds.

“That’s my main job as a point guard, is to get everyone involved and then get it to the hot hand,” explained Keyser, who has been first-team all-conference the past three years and honorable mention all-state last winter. “It really doesn’t matter who it is. We’ve had games where most of our scoring came from the inside, and other games where it’s been outside shooting. We just have to be able to do both, and then we’re tough to stop.”

It’s when Grand Haven gets stagnant or starts struggling that Keyser takes over.

She has been remarkably consistent throughout her four-year varsity career, averaging 15.2 points per game her freshman season and 16.1 points this winter, along with 5.1 steals and five assists per game.

While Keyser’s speed, court vision and shooting touch always have been there, the biggest change in her game over the past four years is from a leadership perspective.

“I have become much more vocal,” said Keyser, who plans to major in business management at Northwood. “I was quiet as a freshman and sophomore and didn’t want to overstep my bounds. Now I’m more comfortable speaking up.”

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.

PHOTO: (Top) Grand Haven’s Alli Keyser pushes the ball upcourt, a frequent occurrence during her four seasons as a starter. (Middle) Keyser makes a strong move to the basket. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)