GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — The Grand Haven girls basketball program went a combined 81-2 overall from 2010-13 with all three seasons ending at the Breslin Center.
The first was a state semifinal loss in 2010-11 before a state championship the following year in 2011-12.
However, the era was capped by the team in 2012-13 when the Buccaneers went a perfect 28-0 and ended the season with an overtime victory over Grosse Pointe South in the state finals.
"We graduated six out of our top seven players going into that season," recalled head coach, Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer heading into the 2012-13 season.
Six-foot-five center Abby Cole was the key to the Grand Haven run over the three seasons and she recalls the questions and talk surrounding the team going into 2012-13.
"I remember when we started that season, people would say things like, 'Oh, do you think you guys could ever win another championship?' Cole recalled, "I was like, 'heck yeah, we'll be good like last year, we've got a great team. We had a lot of young talent coming up and just a lot of people that were eager to play and play hard."
Graduating so much from the 2011-12 season led to those kinds of questions and doubts from certain people around the community and West Michigan, but it was time for new faces to step up.
"Amanda Merz was a sophomore that year, she played on the Junior Varsity as a freshman," added Kowalczyk-Fulmer, "then, she stepped right into a varsity starting spot."
And Merz recalled watching the varsity make it to East Lansing when she was still in middle school.
"I was in eighth grade and watched them go to Breslin and then as a freshman, I got to witness them win it from the stands," Merz said, "being in an atmosphere like that was awesome, but it made me really hungry as a sophomore. I wanted to be a part of it."
The Buccaneers had a balanced team, full of depth but it was Abby Cole's ability to protect the rim that really stood out.
"With Abby Cole in the paint blocking shots, we knew if we got beat off the dribble you always had that six-foot-five around the rim, you can't coach that," Kowalczyk-Fulmer added.
And Merz recalls how nice it was to have someone like that behind her defensively.
"We could be really aggressive on the defensive end, I could go play pressure defense and if I got beat, I knew she was there and probably going to block the shot," Merz laughed. "I did block Abby Cole in practice, though, it was a clean block, that did happen and I hold that over her head to this day," she added.
The team took a one game at a time approach, but also knew what was at stake when the regular season was winding down.
"At the end of the regular season, you go into the postseason play like, 'okay, if we win the state finals, we're going to be 28-0,'" Merz said.
And the Buccaneers would win their first four games of the postseason by at least 19 points before a third showdown with OK Red foe, Grandville, stood in front of them.
Grand Haven would beat the Bulldogs, 36-26 to advance and would go on to beat Grand Ledge and Westland John Glenn to advance to yet another state finals, once again against Grosse Point South.
"The final game was crazy, when we watched Grosse Point South play in the semifinals, they were really tough," Kowalczyk-Fulmer added, "they returned most of their players [from the season prior]."
The Buccaneers would turn the ball over 32 times but shot 76-percent from the floor, en route to a 60-54 overtime victory.
"We had a mindset to go in and not turn the ball over, but we obviously had quite a few turnovers," Merz laughed.
"We turned the ball over, but they weren't turnovers for touchdowns," said Kowalczyk-Fulmer, "and it was one of those games where we shot the lights out."
And Cole still recalls the critics who predicted them to lose in districts and not make it to another championship.
"People predicted us to lose in districts," Cole said after the game on March 16, 2013, "proving people wrong and getting to where we were today means so much for this team, it really hits home with us."
And as only a sophomore, Merz couldn't believe what they had accomplished.
"It was surreal, you know as a little kid you always dream of winning a national title, or in this case, a state championship," Merz said, "to have that dream come true, it almost didn't feel real."
Kowalczyk-Fulmer has been coaching at Grand Haven since 1999 and while she says she loves each team equally, admits there was something special about that era.
"It was a special group, we had a ton of talent, we had size, we had depth, we had skilled players and kids that put a lot of time into basketball."
And it's something the players will always remember.
"It's just a testament to the Grand Haven program and the group of girls I was with," said Merz.
"It was a special season that I will forever hold deeply in my heart," Cole added.