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Column: Total team effort delivers sweet victory

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:21 PM

The tears were flowing on both sides of the court, but for two clearly different distinctive reasons.

Grosse Pointe South’s were that of heartbreak, a stinging recognition that for two years in a row, the Blue Devils had to settle for second best, even if this time, they may have had more collective talent.

On the other end, Grand Haven’s Courtney Springer’s eyes were red, her cheeks flush as the emotions outpoured. Abby Cole, who jokingly said she looked awful in last season’s celebration photos because she was sobbing, tried her hardest, but couldn’t help it from happening again.

Tears of joy are the sweetest kind, because they're often a sign of a goal you've worked relentlessly for, even if the reward at the end of the tunnel is doubted and may never come.

Grand Haven's reward has come in the form of another Class A state championship after its 60-54 overtime win against the Blue Devils in Saturday's Class A finals at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The way the Bucs achieved this championship is sweet, because there were all kinds of doubts about their chances, from the concerns of replacing four starters at the beginning of their season, all the way to crunch time of Saturday's championship at the Breslin.

Every step of the way, they displayed a heart of a champion, even in the most tense moments of their young lives before thousands of watchful eyes.

Grand Haven's once-comfortable 11-point lead in the third quarter on Grosse Pointe South quickly evaporated in the swarm of the Devils' pressure defense, and Cole, the Bucs' Class A Player of the Year, made the situation even more nerve-wracking when she was whistled for her fourth foul with 1:06 remaining in the quarter.

"It was so frustrating (sitting on the bench)," Cole said, who wrapped up her brilliant prep career with 11 points, eight blocks and seven rebounds. "I was tapping my foot, pulling on my jersey, biting my tongue. I'm just thinking 'Oh my gosh, it was so stressful.'

"But that's where the confidence in my team comes in. I really do trust them in those types of situations and know they'll make the smart play. And when it comes down to it, they did. I'm so proud of this team."

Grand Haven held off the bleeding as long as it could, but the Devils kept inching closer, connecting on huge outside shots, even with Cole back on the court two minutes into the fourth quarter.

Grosse Pointe South took a 49-48 lead with under three minutes remaining in regulation -- its first lead since early in the first quarter -- and most probably expected the Devils to remain on top.

But again, a heart of a champion emerged.

Two members of the Bucs' super supporting cast -- Hannah Wilkerson and Taylor Craymer -- players who would be superstars on almost any other team in the state, each played brilliantly down the stretch. They each scored on clutch drives to the hoop to put the Bucs back on top, and Wilkerson, the Ferris State-bound forward, made a crucial defensive stop in the closing seconds of regulation, breaking up a back-door play for Devils' star Cierra Rice.

Cole had a fitting quote at the end of the Bucs' quarterfinal win, saying 'a team is only as strong as it's weakest link.' That mindset was vital against a team like the Grosse Pointe South, which arguably has 3-4 players on its roster who will go on to play in college. Quite simply, if Grand Haven was able to produce only a one-person army of Cole against the Devils and little else, they wouldn't be state champions today.

"I really felt they were better than us at a lot of positions," said Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "But we were able to hit some shots early on to give us a lead. Basketball is a game of runs. I always tell them you can't relax when you're up and you can't freak out when you're behind.

"I've got a group of really resilient kids. I'm lucky."

Cole was being hounded by the Devils like she had stolen their basketball shoes in the early going, but it allowed her teammates to step up and shine. Cole had just five points midway through the third quarter, but the likes of Wilkerson, Craymer, point guard Amanda Merz and senior guard Grace Kendra kept hitting big shot after big shot, erasing the negatives of turnover and after turnover against the Devils' pressure.

"They were guarding Abby really well inside," Wilkerson said, who led the Bucs with 17 points. "But that left the outside open and we hit some big shots early. That forced them to come out to guard us and then the lanes were open to drive."

It's amazing to believe that Grand Haven led most of this game, having turned the ball over 32 times and allowed Grosse Pointe South to attempt 78 shots -- 39 more than the Bucs. But Grand Haven made their shots count. No, it wasn't a typo on the final stat sheet indicating Grand Haven connected on 75 percent of its attempts, including 5-of-6 from beyond the 3-point line.

But that's what championship teams do. They rise to the occasion when the opportunity presents itself, such as times when their star player is nervously fidgeting on the bench.

Once overtime rolled around and Cole muscled her way to two low-post hoops, the rest was all about effort. Wilkerson, who admitted she couldn't feel her legs while walking into the halftime locker room, must have had enough feeling in her toes, because she led a stifling defensive charge that shut down the Devils' shooters for good.

The parade of hugs, cheers, and yes, tears, was a blur. Cole held the trophy high above her head to showcase to the army of Bucs' fans in attendance, as if to almost prove again that see, they really had done the unexpected.

The seeds that were first planted during the sticky-hot summer scrimmages, when Kowalczyk-Fulmer first believed that state championship glory just might be in store again, had bloomed at the Breslin.

For the Bucs, it couldn't have smelt sweeter, even if it meant wiping away a few tears.

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