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Grand Haven Girls Basketball Preview

Josh VanDyke • Dec 3, 2018 at 6:15 AM

With 18 seconds left in the game and her team down three points, Grand Haven's Alli Keyser calmly stepped through a double screen set by a pair of her teammates and knocked down a game-tying three-point shot against Caledonia on Feb. 23.

She didn't know it at the time, but she had surpassed the 1,000-point milestone in her high school career, becoming the first player in school history to reach the mark as a junior.

That play serves as an encapsulation of Keyser's career thus far with the Buccaneers. She has a quiet confidence but carries a big-time skill set that shines through in the clutch.

Since the moment she stepped on the court as a freshman, the 5-foot-7 guard has led her team in points, assists and steals. Now a four-year varsity starter and future Division II college basketball player, Keyser has evolved into not only a playmaker, but a vocal leader and quite possibly one of the most decorated Buccaneers ever.

"She'll probably leave this building as one of the best ever in our program's history," said Grand Haven head coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "She's most likely going to end up with the career record for points, assists and steals in program history, and she's earned it. It's been fun to see her grow and develop as a player and a leader. She was good the second she walked on the court as a freshman, but she's really taken it up a notch, as far as her abilities and leadership over the past few seasons.

"She plays so hard on both ends of the court. She doesn't like to lose, she's constantly making her teammates better, and she's put a lot of time into her game. She's in here every weekend putting shots up and working on some aspect of her game.

"Above all else, she's a great kid, who is very coachable. She's a role model for the younger girls at our school and she's given a lot back to the community, too."

BASKETBALL FAMILY

For Keyser, basketball has always been her biggest passion — something that seems to be a family tradition.

"I started playing when I was about 5 years old, and I haven't taken a single season off since then," she said. "I think my parents are a big reason why I love basketball so much. Everyone in our family played basketball at some point, and they both played at St. Joe's (Indiana) when they were in college.

"My sister (Taylor) is someone that I kind of idolized growing up, because she was a few years older than me, and I watched her play through high school. I just really enjoyed watching those teams play, and I think witnessing the high school atmosphere really drew me into basketball."

When watching college basketball, Keyser also gained an appreciation for a particular skillful point guard, who has since blossomed into a WNBA star.

"We are all huge Notre Dame fans in my family, so I got to watch Skylar Diggins play a lot when she was in college, and I love the way she plays the game," said Keyser. "She's got a lot of different moves to set up her shot, and she's a great playmaker."

PERFECTING HER CRAFT

Despite being a talented scorer from the jump, Keyser didn't rest on her natural talent. She's completely changed her shot since her freshman season, and still looks to add new components to her skill set.

"I work on my shot every weekend," said Keyser. "I changed my shot after my freshman year, so I've had to put in a lot of work on my shot since then. I used to hold the ball high and keep it there while I was going into my shooting motion, but now I keep the ball down and then bring it up as I'm going into my motion.

"That has helped me shoot better off the dribble and have a quicker release."

"This season, I'm really working hard on my mid-range shot. I've gotten better at driving to the lane and finishing, shooting from the outside and shooting off the dribble, but I'd like to improve on my shot from the middle of the floor."

That kind of dedication is something that makes Keyser a special player in her coach's eyes.

"She's got great foot speed and quickness, and she can probably beat anybody off the dribble and just get to the rim at will," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "Despite that, she's not content with just relying on her speed. She's improved her shooting form to become a better three-point shooter and this offseason, she's put a lot of time in on her mid-range jump shot, too.

"She's also one of those kids that wants the ball in her hands when the game is on the line. The moment is never too big for her. She's made a lot of big shots in the last few years, and she's never been afraid to take over a game or shoot the last shot."

Kowalczyk-Fulmer has helped support Keyser since she was inserted into the starting lineup as a nervous freshman, and now the two share a special bond.

"I can't even explain how much she's meant to me," said Keyser of her coach. "She's always letting me into the gym or even driving me to the gym sometimes. She's really good at supporting me, while also telling me things that I need to work on in order to get better.

"She's really like another mom to me. Even if I'm having school problems or something is stressing me out before or after practice, I know I can go to her office and talk to her.

"My freshman year, I wasn't very loud and Coach K would always get after me about being more vocal. I think now that I'm a senior, I've really grown in that area a lot. I'm not as shy as I used to be, and that's kind of helped me be more vocal."

Now with one more season paired together, the two are hunting for trophies, as the Buccaneers hope to put together a title contender.

"She's made a lot of big plays in her career here, but it'd be nice if we could add a conference title or a district championship as one of those memories," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "We really feel like this year is our year. We know it's not going to be easy, especially in our league and our district, but we feel like we have a chance to put together a special season if we can stay healthy."

THE BUCS ARE BACK

Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Buccaneers will be replacing two starters from last year's lineup with the graduation of Autumn Buikema and Sophie Mariani, but the majority of the roster behind them is back this season. Seven seniors return to the roster, including future Division II college athletes Keyser (Northwood), Esther Byington (Northern Michigan) and Kelly Olthof (Lake Superior State), giving Kowalczyk-Fulmer one of her more experienced groups since 2013.

"We've had talented teams the last few years, but we've only had a handful of seniors," she said. "This year, we have seven seniors on the roster and most of them have logged a lot of valuable minutes as sophomores and juniors. All seven of those seniors have played a lot recently, too. So, we not only have depth, but it's experienced depth."

Byington, Otholf and fellow senior Anna Strom form a collection of three-year varsity players who will be pivotal playmakers for the Bucs this season.

"Esther and Kelly are coming into this season pretty motivated, because they both feel like their junior seasons were stolen from them due to injuries," Kowalczyk-Fulmer said. "Those two give us a lot of options, especially on offense. There's not a lot of teams out there that have two post players that are 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-1 and are talented enough to go D-II in college.

"Anna Strom is one of the best passers on the team, and she's a good shooter, too. She really finished the season strong last year, and she'll be a key player for us on the perimeter this season."

Due to injuries and rotation shuffles, the Bucs played everyone on the roster last year, deepening the well of reserves that the squad can go to throughout the game.

"We had to really adopt a ‘next girl up' mentality last year, and I think that will serve us well this season," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "Olivia McMullen and Dahlia Jerovsek both logged a lot of minutes for us last season, as well as Ashlyn Hall. Olivia is a long post player, who is great on the defensive end of the court and Dahlia is one of our better on-ball defenders. Ashlyn is a great athlete, and she can do a little bit of everything for us."

NEW FACES

Former Zeeland West standout Jolee Houle will join the Bucs this season, after transferring schools last year, giving the team an added bonus in the backcourt.

"Jolee was an All-Conference guard at Zeeland West as a freshman, so she's a very skilled offensive player," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "The team welcomed her in this year, and we're hoping she can become an additional scoring threat in our backcourt."

Juniors Tatum Davis, Morgan Goss and Jalen Greene, as well as sophomore Mackenzie Gross, will also be in the mix for playing time, as the team hopes to use a balanced attack to keep opponents on their heels this season.

KEY GAMES

In the non-conference slate, the Buccaneers will travel to Jenison (Jan. 4) and Muskegon (Jan. 29) for potential playoff previews, while a Feb. 1 showdown with Zeeland West at "The Pit" at Lakeshore Middle School will also be an important date to circle on the calendar.

If Grand Haven hopes to capture the league championship this season, they'll likely have to win their matchups with East Kentwood and West Ottawa. The Buccaneers play West Ottawa at home Jan. 8 and travel to the Panthers on Feb. 5. They will host the Falcons on Jan. 25, before ending the regular season at East Kentwood on Feb. 22 in what could be the de facto championship game in the O-K Red.

"Jenison and Muskegon will be two games that really prepare for us for the postseason," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer. "We know we'll probably have to beat Muskegon to win the district, and Jenison is a team that could make a run for a regional title this year.

"We're hoping to make it to regionals this year, because we'll be hosting it for the first time since 2014. I think between our non-conference games and our league gauntlet, we should be well prepared come March.

"Hopefully, we can put it all together and take home a few of those trophies."

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