Strong Finish Sends Forest Park to Final

March 13, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Lexi Gusset finally got to smile with about five seconds left in Friday’s last Class D Semifinal at the Breslin Center.

Her frustration melted, she yelled “Let’s go! One more game,” before being enveloped by a similarly relieved group of teammates. 

Crystal Falls Forest Park and this season’s Miss Basketball Award winner were eight minutes from an eight-hour drive two days earlier than expected as they trailed Athens with a quarter to play.

But the Trojans showed they are more than just the best player in the state. And that superstar poured it on when needed most to help her team finish a 49-33 comeback over the Indians. 

Gussert played the final 9 minutes and 31 seconds with four fouls – and despite Athens driving to draw the fifth – but managed to stay on the floor to score nine of her game-high 20 points during the fourth quarter.

 “Obviously being a leader, you don’t want to be sitting on the bench in the Semifinal game,” Gussert said. “But I knew I had be there for my team. That’s the most I’ve sat all year, so I was a little pumped up.” 

Top-ranked Forest Park (26-0) will face Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (21-5) for the championship at 10 a.m. Saturday. Each is seeking its first MHSAA title.

The Trojans advanced to the 2012 Semifinals with Gussert a sophomore and fell to Athens that day 61-48 despite 34 points and 12 rebounds from the eventual Michigan State University recruit. 

Forest Park’s rotation has included nine or 10 players most of this season, and they had the experience of beaten Iron Mountain 74-39 midseason without Gussert, who missed because she was ill. Generally that depth has allowed the Trojans to wear opponents down. This time it allowed them to hang on – while also turning up the pressure enough to hold Athens scoreless during the fourth quarter.

“The girls are comfortable with it, and I’m glad we have that experience. We have the best player in the state on our team, but we have a whole lot of other good players (too),” Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen said. “I trust my team enough that I have faith in all of them. … I just didn’t think they would crack. We don’t change what we do; we just don’t do it as well without Lexi on the floor with us.” 

Sophomore guard Maria Stankewicz did the main filling in on the offensive end, finishing with 10 points and five assists. Senior center Kendra Campbell added eight points and freshman guard Abby Nylund had six points and seven rebounds.

Stankewicz also played the role of yeller at Gussert to not foul when Athens got out on a few fast breaks headed her way. 

“It was a lot different because I wasn’t used to it. But overall it wasn’t just me,” Stankewicz said. “I tried to take charge, tried to be a leader when she stepped off. But our posts played tougher and my other guard played tougher. We really were a team together.”

The Indians (22-4) did lead 33-32 heading into the final quarter. But in addition to not stopping Gussert’s final surge, they also struggled to find the hoop. The scoreless period included five turnovers and 11 missed shots.

This was Athens’ third straight trip to Breslin, and that no doubt helped the Indians stay calm when they trailed by 10 just more than six minutes into the game. But they couldn’t summon a final run.

“Sometimes during the season we had spells like that, and I think we started pressing it,” Athens coach Calvin Quist said. “When you start pressing it, it makes it more difficult for those shots to fall.

“We lost three senior starters from last year, and you don’t know what to expect,” he added. “Obviously we had high expectations. And these young ladies exceeded those expectations.”

Athens was ranked No. 5 entering the District tournament. Senior Audrey Oswalt finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and junior guard Allison Fuller added eight points.

She’s one of 10, including two starters, who will try to make it four straight trips to finish the season in East Lansing.

“I can’t dwell on this season. We had a great season, and I’m proud of my team, but we’ve got to get ready for next year as soon as possible,” Fuller said. “It comes up quick, and the more we prepare the better chance we’ll have to get here for the fourth time.”

Click for the full box score and video from the press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Forest Park's Maria Stankewicz (10) tries to dribble past Athens' Allison Fuller on Friday. (Middle) Athens' Allysha Beal pushes the ball upcourt with Forest Park's Samantha Nylund giving chase.

HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Audrey Oswalt of Athens completes the long pass off the Crystal Falls miss to Allison Fuller late in the first half of the Class D Semifinal. Fuller finished with eight points. (2) Alexis Gussert starts a 17-0 fourth quarter for Forest Park with a jump shot en route to a 20-point performance. The Trojans won 49-33.

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.)