It didn’t take LaTonya Tate long to begin her basketball coaching career. But it took her 20 years to find the right fit.
Tate is in her fifth season as girls varsity basketball coach at Detroit Cass Tech, and the Technicians are experiencing success not seen since Tate was one of the state’s top players for Cass Tech during the mid-to-late 1980s.
As a senior in 1987, Tate led the Technicians to the Class A championship, scoring the go-ahead 3-pointer as Cass Tech came back from 20 points down to defeat reigning champion Saginaw 52-51. Tate that fall also finished runner-up for the Miss Basketball Award, to Salem’s Dena Head.
By returning to her alma mater as coach, Tate has energized the program. Last season Cass Tech won its first District title in 25 years, and this winter the Technicians are 15-1 heading into Friday’s Public School League final against Detroit Renaissance.
For her, it’s been worth the wait.
“This is home, Tate said. “This is a good group of young ladies I have. I’m blessed.
“The first two (seasons) were tough. I was like Cinderella. I was like an outcast. I was the new kid on the block.”
For any new coach, gaining players’ trust is paramount. It takes time. Tate has earned that trust, and the results are taking shape.
A few games this season stick out when assessing the Technicians’ play to this point. A 52-51 victory over one of the top teams in the Chicago Public League, Chicago Phillips, in a December holiday tournament is notable. The following day (Dec. 29) Cass Tech lost to Davison, 53-47, in the same tournament. Davison (8-7), a member of the Saginaw Valley League, recently lost to state power Flint Carman-Ainsworth (13-2) in overtime 52-48.
On Jan. 25, Cass Tech defeated Southfield Arts & Technology, last season’s Division 1 runner-up, 46-40, and five days later defeated its fiercest rival, Detroit Martin Luther King, 68-43, in a tune-up for the PSL playoffs. This past Monday, led by junior Precious Fields’ 29 points and six rebounds, Cass Tech defeated King, 70-38, in a PSL semifinal.
It was King which Cass Tech defeated (64-56) in the District Final last season, and that win did much to rid the program of some unwanted distinction. King had owned the Technicians since Tate’s departure as a player. King not only became the dominant team within Detroit, but the Crusaders, with William Winfield as coach, became a program everyone looked to as a front-runner statewide. From 1990-2016, King won four Class A titles under Winfield and reached the Finals six other times.
“It’s been 25 years since we beat King, and we beat them two of the three times we played them last year,” Tate said. “It was very gratifying. I’ve taken a lot of beatings from that organization. The entire team did their job (in the District Final).”
Tate’s return is half of a feel-good story for this sport at Cass Tech. Tate’s longtime friend and classmate, Steve Hall, took over the boys basketball program in 2015, coinciding with Tate’s hiring. Hall took over a program that was competitive, but he has taken it to another level. Three years ago Hall’s team won the school’s first PSL title since 1998, and his team won the title again last year. This season the Technicians are 15-1 and ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press rankings heading into tonight’s PSL semifinal against Detroit Communications and Media Arts.
Tate’s team is riding a 10-game winning streak; Hall’s has won 11 consecutive heading into the PSL semifinal.
Hall also serves as the school’s co-athletic director (with football coach Thomas Wilcher) and, although he was not responsible for the hiring of Tate, did inform school administrators of his high regard for his old friend.
“Indirectly, I did speak on her behalf,” Hall said. “Our careers have mirrored each other’s. We both had successful high school careers, played in college (Tate at Iowa, Hall at Virginia Tech and Washington) and both of us coached in college.
“It was a home run to get LaTonya. I’m excited for her program. She has a junior-laden team. She was a great player and uses that experience when she talks with her players. She cares about the girls and is passionate about the game.”
Tate began her coaching career at Kansas State as a part-time assistant in 1994. The next season she went to Syracuse as a graduate assistant. Tate was a member of the Detroit Mercy women’s basketball staff for two separate stints, from 1995-97 and 2004-07. She was also an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago (1997-2001).
As a player at Iowa she was captain of the 1991-92 Hawkeyes squad and played on three Big Ten championship teams. Four times Iowa went to the NCAA Tournament with Tate.
Tate is all in with her program and the school. A substitute teacher in physical education since her return, Tate is working toward her teaching certificate and looking forward to the day when she becomes a full-time teacher.
“The last three years have been great,” Tate said. “We have our study table, and that’s where the girls bond. That’s where they get their work done. That’s where they can loosen up away from the court.”
Even when Tate struggled her first two seasons (finishing below .500 both times), Hall was in her corner. Expectations are high at Cass Tech. Often parents and supporters of the program expect positive results to come quickly.
“When people were impatient, I was there to talk about how much she means to the program,” Hall said. “She’s a real humble and modest person. She doesn’t talk about herself. But I (talk about her). Back when we played the girls played in fall, before we did. They set the bar high. We’ve been friends a long time and we’re competitive, but in a good way.”
As Hall noted, Tate’s team is young but does have experience. Shooting guard Kennedy Tidwell is a returning starter and one of two seniors. Kristen Jones is the other senior and sees playing time at the point.
Fields, a 5-10 forward, leads the team in scoring (18 ppg), rebounds (10) and steals (3.5). Tidwell is next in scoring at 14.3 ppg. Fields is a three-year varsity player and returning starter.
The other top players are 6-1 junior center Kianna Johnson, junior point guard Desiree Jackson and sophomore guard Taylor Williams. Williams became a starter with the start of the MHSAA Tournament last season.
“We’re better this year,” Fields said. “We were good last year, but our chemistry wasn’t as good. The maturity has changed. Experience has played a big role. Everyone is bigger and better.
“Personally, my shooting is better. I’ve always been a confident shooter, and I worked hard on my game. And I’m more versatile now. I can score and rebound. And I’ve gained maturity. I didn’t think I had to work hard before. I’ve worked hard this season. Even in practice I still push my (post players) to rebound. I take pride in that. I put it into my head that every rebound will be ours.”
Fields said it means a lot to her and her teammates that Tate is a Cass Tech graduate, has won a state title and demands so much of them. The players are proud of what their coach has accomplished and respect the fact that Tate is tough on them.
“It’s the accountability,” Tate said. “It means a lot for us (Hall and Tate) to be here. We walked these halls. There are standards here. Just having pride in what Cass Tech means, academically and as student-athletes.”
Click here to watch Cass Tech's 1987 championship game win over Saginaw.
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Detroit Cass Tech girls basketball team will bring a 10-game winning streak into Friday's PSL final. (Middle) Precious Fields is the team's leading scorer and rebounder. (Photos courtesy of Precious Fields.)
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.)