A perfect start to the season has Grand Haven girls basketball team thinking big

By Nate Thompson
LocalSportsJournal.com

GRAND HAVEN -Every day at practice, the Grand Haven girls basketball team has a visual reminder of what’s possible.

All the players have to do is look up.

“There are two giant posters up on the wall of the state championship teams, so it’s like a daily reminder of what we want to do,” said senior Esther Byington, the team’s 6-foot-3 center.

Whether it’s fair or not, any successful girls team at Grand Haven will be compared to the program’s first queens of the court – the 2011-12 and 2012-13 squads that reigned supreme at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.

Both of the those championship teams defeated Grosse Pointe South in the Class A state championship game. The 2012-13 squad stamped its dominance by becoming the only team in school history to finish with a perfect record – 28-0 – capped by a thrilling 60-54 overtime victory in the finals.

Esther Byington listens to No. 4 Ali Keyser as she talks to her team during a break in the action. Photo/Jason Goorman

Byington and the rest of the Bucs were in middle school at the time, but she remembers being star struck any time she had the chance to meet the varsity players.

“They were like superstars walking around the halls,” Byington recalled. “I remember being so happy after they signed our shirts or posters we had.

“I was at White Pines (Middle School) and for the state championship, we had a sign-out sheet so we could go watch them. Even the teachers were leaving so they could go watch them play.”

The current group of Bucs have a long way to go to meet that level, but the excitement is definitely building. Grand Haven is off to a sparkling 10-0 start, keyed by an outstanding senior class and a tremendous mix of talented size in the paint and quality shooters around the perimeter.

The Bucs hope to keep their record perfect with a home game against East Kentwood on Friday night.

Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, now in her 21st season leading the program, said it’s difficult to compare this year’s squad to her title teams, but in the big picture, she believes they are similar.

“I believe in my team more than anybody,” she said.  “So yeah, I think we are capable of getting there. I think we have all the pieces. We’ve got experience with seven seniors this year. We’ve got depth and experience. We can score inside or outside, and we’ve got great size. We can go 6-foot-3, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 (in our rotation). And we’re not living and dying by one big-time scorer. We’ve got a good combination of scorers.”

Kelly Olthof squares up for a free throw attempt for Grand Haven. Photo/Jason Goorman

Kowalczyk-Fulmer believes the team’s biggest asset is the unusually large class of seniors, who are in search of their first district title. The key trio in that group are all committed to play Division 2 college basketball — Byington at Northern Michigan University, 6-1 forward Kelly Olthof at Lake Superior State, and 5-9 guard Alli Keyser at Northwood University. So all three will eventually be rivals in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

When all is said and done, Keyser will be one of the most decorated players in Grand Haven history. A four-year varsity player, she’s on pace to break Emma Veach’s career scoring record, is already the record-holder in career steals, and is closing on the program’s career assist record.

This season, Keyser is averaging a team-high 17.2 points per game, along with four assists and four steals per game.

“She’s a threat all around,” Byington said of Keyser. “She has such as high basketball IQ and because of that, she’s such a big leader on our team. When she speaks up, we all listen to her because she has such a strong knowledge of the game.”

Byington was struck with bad luck the past two seasons, suffering an injury right before the postseason during her sophomore campaign, and a season-ending torn labrum just five games into her junior season.

Now completely healthy, Byington is averaging seven points and five rebounds a contest, and adds value as a rim protector, with nearly two blocks a game. Byington said she’s improved her post scoring, thanks to the tutelage of assistant coach Norm Greene, one of the Grand Haven boys program’s all-time greats.

Ali Keyser sets up the play for Grand Haven. Photo/Jason Goorman

Olthof can also provide a scoring punch in the paint. She’s averaging 7.5 points and five rebounds a game.

“She’s a monster in the paint,” Byington said. “If she goes up, she’s going to finish, whether you’re in her way or not. We push each other in practice all the time. It doesn’t matter who’s scoring because we want each other to do well.”

Add in deadly shooters like Anna Strom and junior Jolee Houle, a transfer from Zeeland West, and the Bucs may have all the pieces to match the legacy of their former idols.

“We definitely kind of expected to have a really good season, although starting 10-0 is a little surprising,” Byington said. “This group of seniors has really put a lot of work into getting better. We all play travel basketball, and a lot of us are playing together in fall leagues or summer leagues. I think coaches realized around middle school our class was going to be special.”

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