By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – When Division 1 Ann Arbor Pioneer made a last-second 3-pointer to force Adrian Lenawee Christian to overtime a little more than a month ago – and the Cougars still prevailed – junior Elizabeth Miller knew her team was on the way to another special finish this winter.
Only a season removed from the team’s first MHSAA girls basketball championship, there no doubt were recognizable signs.
“We really just played with heart in overtime and ended up winning, and that was a really big win for us,” Miller said. “That kinda motivated us to work really hard the rest of the season. I think that’s what pushed us to get here today.”
After winning Class D led by an all-state freshman and without a senior in the starting lineup, it may have seemed inevitable Lenawee Christian would return to Calvin College and the final day of this season.
The Cougars took the last step Thursday with a 57-36 Division 4 Semifinal win over Fowler, setting up Saturday’s 10 a.m. championship matchup with undefeated St. Ignace.
By looks of their scores this playoff run, Lenawee Christian (25-2) barely has been challenged – Thursday’s win was the sixth straight by at least 15 points since opening the tournament with an eight-point victory over Pittsford.
But it’s hardly been that easy, as the Cougars again prepped for this postseason with a slate of games against larger opponents, losing only to Division 3 top-10 teams Grass Lake and Michigan Center.
“We know we have to work hard. We know what it takes … just do it as a team to get here,” Lenawee Christian junior Dani Salenbien said. “We know what it takes, and we know it’s not going to be easy.”
Thursday’s start certainly helped.
A year ago, the Cougars needed overtime to get past Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart by two points in their Semifinal. This time, Lenawee Christian built a double-digit lead in just under five minutes, and kept it in double digits for good beginning with a Miller 3-pointer nine seconds into the second quarter.
Salenbien, an all-state second-teamer a year ago, led with 25 points and eight rebounds. Her sophomore sister Bree – the Class D Player of the Year by The Associated Press last season – added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Both made at least half their shots from the floor, and Dani missed making the MHSAA record book by two free throws, connecting on 13 of 16 attempts from the line.
“I just think the target on our back has been extremely big, and the expectations have been really high,” Cougars coach (and Bree and Dani’s father) Jamie Salenbien said. “But a credit to these kids for being as young as they are, being able to handle that night in, day in and out. It’s been amazing to see. Their faith and the support from the community has been amazing, and they’ve been able to handle that.”
Expectations were not as high this season for Fowler – but the Eagles put an impressive finishing touch on an inspiring comeback story with their first Semifinal appearance since 1999.
They play in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference – home of Division 3 top-ranked Pewamo-Westphalia and six-time Class D champ Portland St. Patrick among a host of contenders – and two years ago were down to just a varsity team.
Fowler’s lone team went 5-16 in 2016-17, improved to 10-12 a year ago and put together a solid run over the last three weeks to finish this season 17-8.
“When Coach (Nathan Goerge) broke the news that we were only going to have one team my sophomore year, it was kinda hard for me to take,” Eagles senior forward Alyssa Vandegriff said. “But ultimately I think it was a good decision because it helped everyone who was on that one team come together, and we got to know each other. The people who were on that team with us are on our team today. If we weren’t on the same team together my sophomore year, I don’t think we’d be as close as we were or play as well together.”
Junior guard Kalani Koenigsknecht and freshman guard Mia Riley both scored a team-high 10 points for Fowler. Sophomore Sarah Veale had eight points, five rebounds and three assists.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Dani Salenbien directs the offense while Fowler’s Kalani Koenigsknecht defends. (Middle) The Eagles’ Josie Koenigsknecht defends against Salenbien.
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.)