By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
IDA – There are ups and downs in everyone’s coaching career. Unless you are Tim Leonard.
Leonard starts his 28th season as head coach of the Ida High School girls basketball team Tuesday. With a win at home against Monroe Jefferson, Leonard would join the exclusive 500-win club.
The Bluestreaks varsity won at least 12 games every one of his first 27 seasons at Ida. His record is a shiny 499-112.
“That’s a credit to our kids and coaching staff,” said Leonard. “Through all of the years, all of our kids have worked hard for everything. They’ve come to practice every day, and they have played hard.”
Leonard is a retired Michigan State Police detective who started coaching at Ida, his alma mater, in 1986 when he was hired as the boys freshman basketball coach. He took over the Ida junior varsity boys the following season and coached them for 15.
In the meantime, he coached Ida’s 8th-grade girls team in 1989 and 1990 and got the Ida girls varsity job in 1991. Ida went 22-2 that season, winning a Class C District crown and the Lenawee County Athletic Association championship.
It was a sign of things to come for Leonard and Ida.
In the years since, his accomplishments have been remarkable:
- 16 LCAA titles
- 10 District championships
- 2 Associated Press Coach of the Year awards
Leonard said basketball was a sport he always had loved. He’s grateful he was able to coach while working for the state police.
“I think a lot of people get into law enforcement for some of the same reasons they get into coaching or educating kids,” Leonard said. “It’s because of a desire to work with young people, to guide them, to help them along the way.”
As a detective, Leonard would often deal with cases in which children were not always in the most positive light. Coaching, he says, helped counter that.
“Coaching definitely allowed that balance for me,” he said. “In law enforcement, you are often dealing with the negative side. Coaching allows you to work with kids that are doing positive things.”
Ida has done a lot of positive things over Leonard’s tenure. He’s become the winningest girls basketball coach in Monroe County history. His 1999 Bluestreaks hold the school record for wins with 23. The 2016-17 team was his latest to win 20 games when it went 20-3. That was the 11th time in his career that Ida won at least 20 games.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact that in our down years, we still were able to win 12 or 14 games,” he said. “The girls just always seem to buy into what we are teaching them.”
Leonard hasn’t been afraid to change with the times. In his early coaching days, his teams were known for a fast, get-up-and-down-the-floor pace with full-court, man-to-man defense. As different athletes cycled through the Ida program, Leonard was able to adapt to fit the strengths of his roster.
“To be successful, one of the things you have to be willing to do is change,” he said. “You have to figure out what suits the kids the best. We’ve been pretty flexible throughout the years.”
In the last few years, Ida’s transitioned from the full-court press to a 2-2-1 zone press. It’s been a subtle change, but the success has continued. Ida is the reigning LCAA champion and has won three consecutive District crowns. Ida will play in Division 2 this season.
This winter, Ida returns just one starter in Taylor Wegener, but has experienced players coming back along with athletic newcomers. Opponents aren’t expecting anything easy when they take on Ida.
“This year is going to be interesting,” Leonard said. “We are still learning, still adjusting. We’re still getting our legs under us. It might take a little while, but I think it will come together.”
After Leonard retired from the state police, he became Ida’s athletic director, a position he still holds. He’s also turned basketball into family – his daughter Anne, who was a 1,000-point scorer at Ida, and son Chris are assistant coaches.
While the victories have piled up, Leonard said it’s never been about that.
“It’s certainly not about the wins and losses,” he said. “It’s definitely to make a difference in young people’s lives, to mentor and help the kids mature. That’s what it has always been about.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO: Ida girls basketball coach Tim Leonard instructs one of his players. (Photo by Tom Hawley.)
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 email@example.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.)