BY Josh VanDyke
The Grand Haven girls varsity basketball team has gone through the proverbial “growing pains” of a young roster in the last two seasons.
Now, those former underclassmen contributors are seasoned veterans at the varsity level, giving head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer one of her most experienced squads in her 20-year tenure.
“From top to bottom, this year’s team is one of my deepest and most experienced that I’ve ever had,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of players that have been playing at the varsity level since they were freshmen and some girls coming up from a junior varsity team that had a great year last season.”
The playing rotation only loses one contributor from last year’s team that finished 15-7 overall and 8-4 in a loaded O-K Red Conference.
Junior point guard Alli Keyser will return for her third season as a starter on the varsity team after averaging 15 points and three assists per game as a sophomore.
“She’s worked really hard on her game over the offseason,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said of her starting point guard. “She’s gotten quicker and stronger, her ball handling has gotten better, and she continues to work on her shot.
“When people play us, they’re going to be focused on trying to slow her down. I think we have more depth this year, so if teams do try and double her, we have players around her that can make plays, too.”
Senior forward Sophie Mariani and junior center Esther Byington also return to the lineup after strong performances last winter. Senior guard Autumn Buikema and junior forward Anna Strom were also staples in the starting lineup for the Buccaneers last season and will be counted on as major contributors this winter, as well.
Also adding quality depth from last year’s team will be seniors Lucy Toppen and Maggie Long.
“We’ve got size, we’ve got depth, and we’ve got a good balance of inside and outside threats this year,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. “We’ll probably press a little more this year because we’ll have a deeper rotation. Last year, we really only had a seven-player rotation, and we’ll have more people involved this year.
“We’re pretty excited about our potential as a team. Autumn Buikema is one of our best shooters out there. Anna Strom is a talented guard for us, too. She sees the floor really well and is one of our better passers. Sophie (Mariani) is continuing to play really well at the four and Esther is playing well in the post, too.
“Maggie Long brings a lot of experience at a key position for us and she was a contributor for us last year, too. Lucy Toppen is kind of the heart and soul of our team. She was a team captain as a junior last year, so she brings great leadership to our team.”
Junior forward Kelly Olthof will miss the majority of the season due to an ACL injury sustained over the summer, but the team hopes to have her back by late February.
“She’ll be out until the second week of February, which is unfortunate, but that’s how life goes sometimes,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “She’s already back at practice and rehabbing and putting in the work to get back. We’re hoping we can get her back into game action for five or six games in the regular season, so she’s ready to go when the postseason starts.
“It’s always tough to lose someone who was a starter last year, but this is also an opportunity for some other girls to step up and earn some playing time. Good teams find a way to overcome adversity like that and don’t just fall apart. The way I look at it is, when she does come back, we’ll be even deeper.”
The Buccaneers will have the entire starting five from last year’s junior varsity team added to the varsity roster this winter with guards Ashlyn Hall and Dahlia Jerovsek, along with forwards Grace Platz, Olivia McMullen and Anna Ackerman all expected to find roles within the team.
“Anna Ackerman has good size for a guard,” said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. “She shoots the ball well and is a good rebounder. Ashlyn Hall will play more shooting guard at the varsity level, but she’s got a really good basketball IQ. Dahlia Jerovsek is another guard who might be one of our best on-ball defenders. She’s very athletic, quick to the ball and difficult to move around.
“Olivia McMullen is a 6-2 post player with a long body and long arms that make her a good defender and rebounder in the post. She gives us size off the bench. Grace Platz is another player like Anna (Ackerman) that is a guard/forward with good size. All five of those players add quality depth to our team and allow us to do some different things than what we have done in the past when we were a little more limited in our rotation.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
This year’s Grand Haven squad has all the weapons at its disposal to be a force both in their conference and in their district. If the Buccaneers can avoid any more serious injuries and find a level of offensive consistency, they will likely be a major player in both races.
“I think we have a chance to be in the thick of things in the O-K Red Conference this year,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “East Kentwood finished 12-0 in the league last year and made it all the way to the state finals. We finished 8-4 in the league, and we really had a strong second half of our conference schedule and beat some teams that we lost to the first time around.
“As a team, we have a chance to be really good, but we have to continue to work hard and improve. Caledonia has two players that will end up playing in college, Hudsonville is always a quality program, and you can never really count out Rockford, either. So I think the O-K Red will be really tough again this year, and we’ve got some tough games on our schedule.”
The first conference matchup of the season will see the Bucs host the defending conference champions from East Kentwood on Jan. 5. If Grand Haven is able to knock off the Falcons at home, that could be all the momentum they need to take over the league.
Courtesy photo/ Geskus Photography: The 2017-18 Grand Haven girls varsity basketball team. Front row (left to right): Grace Platz, Ashlyn Hall, Lucy Toppen, Alli Keyser, Autumn Buikema, Anna Strom, Dahlia Jerovsek and Anna Ackerman. Back row (left to right): Assistant coaches Katie Erickson and Corky Nyssen, Maggie Long, Kelly Olthof, Esther Byington, Olivia McMullen, Sophie Mariani, assistant coach Norm Greene and head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer.