Tri-unity Ends Historic Run in Quarters

March 16, 2016

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

WYOMING – When the month of March rolls around at Wyoming Tri-unity Christian High School, it’s traditionally been a time for the community to rally around the boys basketball team for a lengthy postseason run.

The boys team has been a perennial state powerhouse in Class D for the past 20 years, winning four MHSAA Finals (1996, 2002, 2006, 2011) and earning four runner-up finishes.  

This season, however, the girls basketball program enjoyed similar success with its own jaunt through the Class D tournament. 

The Defenders won their first MHSAA Regional title last week with a 58-46 win over Climax-Scotts, upping their winning streak to 13 games after an 8-4 start. Tri-unity’s historic campaign ended Tuesday night with a disappointing 71-30 loss to unbeaten Pittsford in a MHSAA Class D Quarterfinal.

"Our goal was to do this,” Tri-unity coach Bryan Sinner said. “This is my third year, and our goal coming in was to bring some respect to the girls’ side of the program and that’s what we’re doing. The boys are going on a run, and we’re on a run, and it’s been fantastic for the school, especially for these girls now.”

The Defenders finished with a 21-5 overall record, and the banner season was something they knew was possible at the start of the season.

“I knew we could go far as long as we worked together,” said senior guard Sarah Buffum, a four-year varsity player who averaged a team-high 17.5 points per game.

“We had the talent, but we just had to come together as a team. We knew we could do it, and winning Regionals was so special, especially since it was the first time in school history. It meant a lot.”

Tri-unity’s other senior, center Marissa Stevenson, said it was thrilling to become the first team to reach the Quarterfinals.

“It was exciting to be noticed and make history for our school,” she said. “I think we were all in a lot of shock when we won, but throughout the season we learned our team chemistry, and our defense really picked up in this tournament. I had so much confidence in our team.”

Said Sinner: “They felt pretty special after that win, and they worked extremely hard for it. It’s a true blessing that we were able to do that, and the support from our fans and community has been fantastic. It’s gone back and forth between the girls and the boys, and it’s really great for our small school.”

The Defenders received a wealth of encouragement from the boys during their journey.

“The boys were supporting us along the way, and that was exciting to see,” Stevenson said. “It was nice to have their support behind us, and we give them our support, too.”

Tri-unity’s squad consisted of only 10 players: six juniors and a pair of sophomores joined the lone seniors.

After enduring two one-point losses on buzzer-beaters early in the season, as well as double-digit losses to Fruitport Calvary Christian and Grand Rapids Covenant Christian, the Defenders began to find their groove.

They gained confidence with each victory and built momentum for the postseason.

“The middle of the season we started coming together and playing as a team,” Sinner said. “I could see some special things happening. There was this determination and this commitment to going out there and leaving it all on the floor. You could see it in their eyes.”

Junior guard Cierra Smith provided a spark for Tri-unity, as did 6-foot sophomore Elasia Craig, who averaged 12 rebounds a game and set a school record for blocked shots with 82.

A demanding schedule, which included games against Class A, B and C squads, also factored into the Defenders’ success.

“Playing those schools helped us prepare and get ready for these months,” Sinner said. “I don’t think we’ve done that in the past, but we’re trying to do that now. I would rather take my lumps during the season in order to prepare us for this time in the season.”

The future of the girls program remains bright with the graduation of only Buffum and Stevenson. An experienced core will be back and a group of younger players are waiting in the wings.

“I have five freshmen playing now, and seven eighth-graders and 13 seventh-graders who are coming to these games and seeing the excitement,” Sinner said. “Hopefully it keeps growing this way.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at dream100@comcast.net with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sarah Buffum drives during Tuesday’s Quarterfinal loss to Pittsford. (Middle) Marissa Stevenson (42) works to get to the basket Tuesday. (Below) Elasia Craig provides plenty of hope for the future after setting a school record for blocked shots. (Photos by Chris Duzan.)

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.)