By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Frank Orlando considered the question for a few seconds Friday and mentioned his 2003 Detroit Country Day team – and the three players next to him, who were toddlers then, all started to giggle.
“They say I’m old as dirt,” Orlando said, and then referred to sophomore Destiny Pitts. “And she’s right, too.”
The question: Is this the youngest team Orlando has coached in 34 seasons? With five freshmen, three sophomores and only two seniors, the answer is yes, younger than the junior-dominated squad that won Class B in 2003.
But on Saturday, it also can join his best.
A near-perfect shooting performance in the first half of Friday’s Class B Semifinal helped Country Day break away and earn a championship opportunity with a 69-39 win over No. 2 Goodrich, the highest-ranked team left in the field.
“We came here as a team together, for one mission only, to win today,” Country Day freshman Kaela Webb said. “Besides the bright lights and the stage that we were playing on, we had to stick together. And we were stressing that in the locker room when we first got here too.”
Country Day (21-4) will play in its 15th MHSAA Final, seeking its 11th title but first since 2009, when it faces Haslett in the day’s last game at 6 p.m.
The Yellowjackets played like a veteran team against Goodrich (25-2), the back-to-back champion in 2012 and 2013.
Yes, Orlando said this is his youngest team. But he said it's also one of the best defensively that he’s coached.
The Yellowjackets were giving up 34 points per game heading into Friday. They allowed junior guard Alexis Sevillian 18 points and senior guard and Miss Basketball Award winner Tania Davis 12. But they held the Martians to 30 percent shooting total and outrebounded them 40-25.
“The maturity I’ve seen in this team is one of the best improvements I’ve seen in my tenure at Country Day,” Orlando said. “They’ve come from 14-year-olds who haven’t played to playing at a level of expertise. I’m so proud of them and their maturity that’s now taken place. I guess you would say it’s a nice time for it.”
Orlando went on to explain that even when teams aren’t scoring, they can compete with good defense. But the Yellowjackets didn’t face that scenario Friday.
They made 50 percent of their shots during the first half, including all six 3-point tries, and finished shooting 44 percent for the game and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Country Day used a 13-3 run to start the second quarter and build a 15-point lead, and an 11-4 run over the final three minutes of the third quarter to regain a comfortable advantage after Goodrich had pulled within six points at 35-29.
“We joked at halftime that if they don’t miss any tonight, there’s nothing we can do. … For me, it was comforting knowing they could not play this well again in the second half,” Goodrich coach Jason Gray said. “(But) we got tired. They’ve got a lot of athletes, and we just couldn’t put together that run we needed in the second half. “
Pitts finished with 28 points, including six 3-pointers, and grabbed 10 rebounds. Senior Jordan Wright added 11 points and 10 rebounds, and Webb had 10 points, three assists and three steals.
Davis finished as a four-year starter for Goodrich and was the team’s leading scorer in its 2013 Class B Final win. She’ll continue her career next season at the University of Iowa.
“Coming into freshman year, I never thought I’d be here at Breslin three times, never thought I’d win Class B Player of the Year (from The Associated Press) two years in a row, never though I’d be Miss Basketball,” Davis said. “It’s been unbelievable. It’s been unthinkable. It’s been my dream, coming up, pretty much.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Jordan Wright (11) and Arika Tolbert (10) block the shot of Goodrich’s Alexis Sevillian during Friday’s Semifinal. (Middle) Country Day’s Destiny Pitts works to drive around Goodrich’s Ciya Hawkins.
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.)