For the first time this season, and maybe for the first time in the past two years, Grand Haven’s varsity girls basketball team was the underdog.
It may sound strange to say that an undefeated team, ranked No. 3 in the state, playing in the state championship game could be considered an underdog, but it’s the truth.
That’s because the Bucs were going up against Grosse Pointe South — the same Grosse Pointe South team that nearly knocked off Grand Haven in last year’s Class A state championship game.
The Bucs prevailed a year ago, but graduated four starters off that squad, along with several other key players.
South, on the other hand, returned three starters, including all-staters Cierra Rice and Claire DeBoer. They also added to their strength with the addition of transfer student Bre’Nae Andrews.
But the players on the court were only part of the driving force behind Grosse Pointe South this year. More importantly was the unquenchable desire to get back to the state championship game and exact their revenge on Grand Haven.
Before the game, coach Kevin Richards admitted that he’s thought of little else over the past year.
“I’d be a liar if it said it doesn’t motivate me,” Richards said on the FOX Sports broadcast before Saturday’s game. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of something I wish I’d done differently, wish we’d done differently.”
The announcers also shared how the Grosse Pointe South players obsession with getting another shot at the Bucs, showing up at 6 a.m. every day throughout the summer to practice on their own.
South blasted its way through the 2012-13 season. Its only loss came in a season-opening defeat to national powerhouse Chicago Whitney Young. The Blue Devils put up points in bunches, scoring 67 against Benton Harbor, 69 against Warren Cousino, and 68 against Chippewa Valley.
South won its state tournament games by an average of 16 points, including a 19-point victory over Dexter in Friday’s semifinals.
Buccaneers’ coach Katie Kowalczy-Fulmer took notice. In front of her team, she put on a brave face, but secretly, she feared that Grosse Pointe South featured too many matchups in their favor. She wondered how the Bucs could contend with the Blue Devils’ devastating trapping defense. She tried to scheme a way that her Miss Basketball candidate center, Abby Cole, could dominate the middle against an athletic South team that would do its best to pull her out onto the perimeter.
And she feared that South, playing with the ultimate chip on its shoulder, would have too many of the intangibles on its side.
“We always believe, but (Friday) night, we sat up as a staff for three hours watching film, and I didn’t feel good about it,” Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. “I thought it was going to be really tough to beat them. We had mismatches all over the court. We were the underdog for sure. I felt they had a lot more pressure on them to win that we did.”
Less than a minute into Saturday’s rematch, all of Kowalczyk-Fulmer’s worst fears were realized. The Bucs won the opening tip, turned the ball over, and South race down the court for a layup.
Moments later, the Bucs turned the ball over again, and this time, Blue Devils center DeBoer stepped away from Cole and swished a long jumper.
In just 37 seconds, South looked poised to win in a blowout.
But then, like Rocky battling back against Ivan Drago, the Bucs came back swinging
First, Taylor Cramer landed a big blow as she swished a 3-pointer. Moments later, it was Cole scoring inside.
South led 9-5 when Craymer hit a floater in the lane, then Hannah Wilkerson drove into traffic and scored to tie the game.
A layup by Courtney Springer made it 11-9 Bucs, then Wilkerson staggered South with a 3-pointer from the corner.
That pushed the Bucs’ lead up to 14-9, and any thoughts of a South blowout were long gone.
Instead, it was Grand Haven, the defending state champions, who looked like the favorites.
Oh, this game was far from over. The Bucs would build a big lead, only to see it dwindle away with Cole saddled with four fouls.
Both teams had chances to win it at the end of regulation. Then came overtime, and even though South had momentum on its side, it was Grand Haven that landed the big blows — a free throw by Amanda Merz; a pair of blocked shots and two inside buckets by Cole.
And when it was all over, it was the Buccaneers who once again stormed the court at the Breslin Center, the tears and the emotions flowing unchecked as they celebrated in each others’ arms.
Grand Haven may have entered the game as underdogs, but they finished it as champions.