Driven by culture of unity, West Catholic girls eye another district title

High School Preps

The Grand Rapids West Catholic girls basketball team. (Courtesy Rick Kimball)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When the clock ticks to 6:45 a.m. on game day, there is a good chance you will hear basketballs bouncing and sneakers squeaking in the gym of Grand Rapids West Catholic High School.

It’s not just junior Abbey Kimball, a star guard for the Falcons who committed to Michigan State as a sophomore. It’s not just senior leader Maddie Smith because it’s her final go-around. It’s not even because head coach Jill VanderEnde requires it. It’s the whole team who is participating in shootarounds while the sun is rising hours before the actual game.

The key factor: It’s because they want to.

“This is just what we do, it’s a part of our culture,” VanderEnde said. “They are very selfless, they bring each other along. On the court they are tough and physical, but off the court they are all best friends. They have each other’s backs.

“That’s been the biggest part of changing our culture.”

Change has indeed been what the program has experienced over the past two seasons.

Up until a season ago, the last time the Falcons had a winning campaign was in 2016-2017 (12-9). They hadn’t won a playoff game since 2011-2012, when they had a third consecutive season of five or fewer losses.

None of those seasons ended with a district title.

After defeating Allendale in the district semifinal, 69-16, on Wednesday night, West Catholic (at a perfect 14-0) is one game away from earning that district championship for a second consecutive season. 

They’ve been winning — and not through a string of close victories, but pure domination.

The last time West Catholic lost a game was Dec. 20, 2019. At that point, the Falcons had three wins. They steamrolled through the rest of the schedule, finishing the regular season at 19-1 with a perfect 12-0 record in the O-K Blue Conference and earning the title. In the postseason, the wins kept coming. After winning the first three games to earn the school’s first district title in 25 years, West Catholic beat Spring Lake and advanced to the regional championship. 

Then, because of the pandemic, the sports world stopped and so did the Falcons’ run at their first regional title since 1995. Just like that, West Catholic’s historic season ended for a reason completely out of their hands. 

Now, there’s plenty of unfinished business.

“We dreamed of that moment,” Kimball said of the regional title game a season ago. “Now, we feel blessed to have a chance at making that run again. This group is so much fun to be around and we want to accomplish these goals.”

For Smith, who is in her fourth season with the program, it’s all about the next game.

“This is my last chance at it as a senior to go out there and make a run at (the state title),” Smith said. “Right now, it’s about this district title we get to play this week which means a lot to me.”

Teammates like Kimball, Smith and a majority of the players on the roster have lived the turnaround this program has been building. Kimball did it a season ago as a sophomore; she was a leader on the court. The team graduated just one senior. From the outside looking in, not many if any could see what the Falcons were building behind closed doors.

Now, a player like Cadence Dykstra, who is only a sophomore, is running the point.

Smith is joined by Maya Mileski, Crysta Daetwiler and Olivia Vallone to have a strong class of senior leadership.

This group isn’t just winning games off pure talent. The players bought into the system and culture.

“When I was a freshman and (Smith) was a sophomore, we didn’t really have the season we wanted (2018-19),” Kimball said. “In the summer, all of the early mornings, it built a contagious energy that caught on and everyone has worked hard.”

The Falcons’ victory over Allendale by 53 points in the district semifinal was something they have become used to. This season, there hasn’t been a game where the margin of victory wasn’t by double figures. On top of that, 12 of those games have been won by 30 or more points.

Kimball led the Falcons with 23 points over Allendale, as she has most of the year. She also scored her 1,000th point against Hamilton in late February with a full season left in high school. 

Combine a scorer like that with a solid core of upperclassman, a sophomore in Dykstra who is starting and plenty of others coming through the system now who are just scratching the surface, and you’ve got a winning culture mounting.

“I love watching them have fun out there,” VanderEnde said. “When they are out there cheering for each other, diving on loose balls, doing the little things and getting excited about a deflection or steal it’s really exciting to see that. You can feel the unity of our team because of those things.”

In the midst of this run of 37-1 over the past two seasons, focusing may seem like it could be hard at times and players could look ahead. Smith said that’s where this team is mentally tough.

“Coach always tells us to keep our blinders on,” Smith said with a smile. “We have work to do and focus on the end goal and what we need to do to get there.”

Standing in the way is Hamilton, which the Falcons beat earlier this season 71-35. While it seems the Falcons are favored, it’s all about treating every game the same. As last year proved, in today’s world, the next one isn’t promised.

“There are things happening in the outside world that we can’t control,” VanderEnde said. “We can try to be as strategic as possible as coaches, and try to work together because we want to accomplish our goals.”

If West Catholic wins districts, it will have another shot at that first regional title since the historic 1995 season when the team finished as state runners-up. VanderEnde believes this group has the pieces to do it if it stays locked in and continues to trust the culture she has helped build.

Of course, she would know. She’s been down that path before, as a member of the 1995 West Catholic girls basketball team — the last one to win a regional title.

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