Johnston Finds Home with Onsted Hoops

March 13, 2020

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

ONSTED – When Mary Kay LaFerney moved from California to Michigan, she had no idea the impact a group of freshmen and sophomore boys were going to have on her son.

And she certainly didn’t know it would be because of basketball.

But that’s what happened this past season for LaFerney and her son, Zachary Johnston, at Onsted High School in Lenawee County. Johnston, 15, who has Down syndrome, wanted to be part of the junior varsity basketball team. The JV head coach Travis Wobrock was on board with the idea.

“He came to every practice and every game,” Wobrock said.

Johnston didn’t mind filling water bottles, grabbing towels or throwing out basketballs. He would also often take part in layup lines at the start of practice and shoot baskets when he could. It didn’t take long before Johnston made a request.

“He said he wanted a jersey,” Wobrock said.

The Onsted junior varsity team members had bigger ideas for Johnston. They wanted him to play in a game.

“Every week, one of the kids on the team would come to me and ask when Zach was going to get his chance,” Wobrock said. “They wanted this to happen so bad.”

As the season drew closer to the finish, Wobrock put the plan in motion. He contacted Clinton junior varsity basketball coach Greg Dutton and told him about Zachary. Dutton was instantly in favor of helping Johnston get into the action.

“When I played at Napoleon, we had a team manager, Alex DeNato, who had Down syndrome,” Dutton said. “He never had the opportunity to get a basket in one of our games, but he would lead us in pre-game speeches and occasionally led us out of the locker room for pre-game warmups.”

The Onsted players decided to wrap Zachary’s jersey up and present it to him a couple of days before the game vs. Clinton.

“He got into the car, and he was smiling,” LaFerney said. “He was carrying a bag. I asked him what was in the bag. He said, ‘Take a peek.’ He was so excited to have a jersey.”

Wobrock videotaped the moment Johnston opened his jersey and posted it on social media. Thousands of people viewed it and read about plans for Johnston to play in the game. As the JV game went on, the stands began to fill up. Some held signs for Zachary. Fans were chanting his name.

“It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever had for a JV game,” said Wobrock.

The players on the floor kept looking over at the bench to see if Johnston was ready. Finally, late in the game, Wobrock walked with Johnston to the scorer’s table. Johnston showed the scorekeeper his jersey – number 15 – checked into the game, and ran onto the court.

“When the crowd erupted, it gave me chills,” Wobrock said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. All the kids stood up. Everyone stood up. We weren’t even focused on basketball that night. We were focused on Zach.”

As players from both teams circled around Johnston, he got his chance. Finally, on a pass from Clinton’s Derek Tomalak, Johnston took aim at the basket and sank the jump shot.

The crowd erupted. Several people were in tears.

“I can’t remember being that emotional before the varsity game even started,” Onsted varsity basketball coach Brad Maska said. “I’m proud of my JV coaches for how they handled that night.”

Dutton said he was more than happy to help the Onsted basketball team make the moment happen. He was also glad his children got to watch from the stands.

“It was a special thing to be a part of and witness,” he said. “I am happy Travis asked our team to be involved. It helps bring into the limelight that basketball is just a game and that there are greater things in life than wins and losses. It's about building young men to be caring, thoughtful individuals when they are done playing.”

Wobrock, who is the graduation coach at Onsted High School, said his eight-player squad learned a lot of valuable lessons this season with Johnston as their manager. The players - Daniel Harrah, Jordan Santimore, Brody Giroux, Zack Gillean, Bradlee Vanbrunt, Harrison Moore, Matt Marsh and Brandon Corder – were just as emotional as everyone else in the Onsted gym.

“They’ve been amazing through this whole thing,” Wobrock said. “I’m very proud of them.

“It’s amazing how they have taken him under their wing. They give him fist-bumps in the hall and hugs. They eat lunch with him. I think that’s kind of how it started. They saw him eating alone at lunch and the whole table invited him to their table. The relationship has just taken off. He’s one of the guys.”

LaFerney is a California native and lived in the San Diego area until two years ago when her family moved to Michigan, where her husband was originally from and has family. They bought a home in the Onsted Community Schools district. It’s been a perfect fit for her son, who is a freshman at the school.

Being part of the school, part of the team, has been extremely important to Zachary, she said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s very aware of his situation and surroundings. He knows how people are treating him.

“This is about way more than just basketball,” she added. “It’s about inclusion. Coach Wobrock was amazing about making sure Zachary was included in every way possible. The players on that team really care for Zachary.”

Wobrock recognized the impact basketball has had on Johnston – and the other players on the Wildcats team.

“Just because someone is different,” Wobrock said, “it doesn’t mean they don’t have the same goals, the same dreams, as everyone else.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onsted junior varsity teammates celebrate with Zachary Johnston after his basket against Clinton. (Middle) Johnston squares up and takes aim. (Below) Johnston shares a celebratory moment with coach Travis Wobrock. (Photos courtesy of Eric Tjolsen.)

Bedford Boys Hoops Off to Best Start in Decade Under Alum Bollin

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

January 24, 2023

TEMPERANCE – The Bedford Mules are kicking up a special boys basketball season in southeast Michigan.

Southeast & BorderTemperance Bedford is off to a 10-1 start, the best for the school in a decade. Third-year coach Jordan Bollin is happy to bring a winner to his alma mater.

“Bedford has had good teams here and there and good players and coaches, but it never seemed to be anything that was sustained,” Bollin said. “I knew it was going to be a challenge.”

Bollin played varsity basketball at Bedford, graduating in 2006. He went into coaching almost immediately after high school and was named head coach at Dundee in 2015. After 68 wins in five seasons, Bollin was named head coach at Bedford.

“I talked it over with my wife, with the athletic director, with (assistant coach) Mark Hubbard,” Bollin said. “I always, in the back of my mind, thought that I would want to come back to Bedford and coach one day. I wanted to do it while I was still relatively a young coach who still had the passion for all of this. It’s the right time.

“I felt like, leaving Dundee, I had an opportunity to build something myself.”

Wrestling has been the winter sports king at Bedford for decades as the Mules spent years at the top of Class A/Division 1 wrestling circles. The boys basketball team has enjoyed its moments, such as a three-year span when it went 18-6, 18-5 and 14-8 across 2012-2014, but there have been down years, too. Various coaches have tried their hand at the helm, including former NBA player Dennis Hopson.

Bollin himself played for coach Bill Ryan, who led the boys team for seven years but has found ultra-success with Bedford’s girls basketball program.

Bollin knew that when he took over the varsity, he wanted to incorporate the entire program.

“No program is one coach,” he said.

He brought multiple assistants with him from Dundee, including longtime Monroe County coach Hubbard, a Bedford graduate, and former head coach in the county himself. The two have formed a bond.

“We talk every day on the phone before practice,” Bollin said. “We go to lunch once or twice a week. He’s a mentor and someone I talk to all the time.”

Bedford has posted wins over a variety of teams this season, from Southeastern Conference teams like Dexter and Monroe to Ottawa Lake Whiteford, Adrian Lenawee Christian and Stockbridge. Ten of the Mules’ final 11 games are against SEC schools, including two against 8-3 Saline.

Bedford coach Jordan Bollin.Bollin knows the toughest is yet to come.

“We get Ann Arbor Huron at home,” he said. “We lost to them by three on the road. We had the ball, down two in the final seconds and had the ball and were called for a travel. It was close.”

Six-foot-7 Andrew Hollinger is the team’s top scorer and rebounder. Four years ago, he played five games on the varsity, then was a starter in Bollin’s first season. He’s now closing in on 1,000 career points and is one of the best rebounders in southeast Michigan.

“He’s phenomenal,” Bollin said. “He plays so hard, and he’s a great kid. He’s a 4.0 student and very humble. You’ll never hear him talk about himself; it’s always about the team.”

While he’s proven to be a great scorer and free throw shooter this season, Hollinger is also a relentless rebounder.

“I’ve always been one of the tallest out on the court, so I know that I can really use that to my advantage in order to rebound,” he said. “Once the shot goes up, I try to chase down the ball or box someone out in order to give my team the chance to get the ball back.”

Bollin said Hollinger’s intensity shows.

“I use him as an example to the other kids all of the time,” Bollin said.

Twice this season Hollinger has set the school record for most consecutive free throws made in a game. He went 15-for-15 once and 16-for-16 another time. Hollinger averaged a double-double last year at 18.2 points and 10.8 rebounds and has topped those numbers through 11 games this season.

Hollinger brings the Mules up court.Hollinger is one of eight seniors on the roster. Like Bollin, he’s a homegrown talent, having made his way up from the Bedford Community Education program in the fourth grade to middle school, JV and varsity.

“I fell in love with basketball when I played in the local community ed program,” he said.

Hollinger said all of the seniors had a feeling this was going to be a great season.

“I think the success from our team comes from how hard we play every game and how much experience we have,” he said. “We knew coming into the season that we were in pretty much every game the season before and just had to find a way to start winning games.”

Bedford won six games during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season and four a year ago – losing several games that came down to the final minute. Bollin has matched the win total in those first two years at Bedford in two months.

Ironically, Bollin said, it was the 2020-21 season during which most of this year’s seniors learned to play varsity basketball.

“We had so many games where we had players out for COVID that we had to bring a lot of them up to the varsity to play,” he said. “A lot of the seniors this year got a ton of playing time that year.”

The other current seniors include Griffin Wolf, Tommy Huss, Jimmy Fackelman, Simon Eighmey, Caleb Kochendoerfer, Evan Campbell, and Leo Wagenhauser. They are complimented by a couple sophomores and juniors plus freshman Carsen Behnke.

Hollinger is hopeful the first-half success will continue.

“We all believed in each other in the offseason, and that belief still continues through the start of the season,” he said, deflecting any attention from himself. “I love how basketball is a team game and how you need the whole team to be playing hard in order to win. It’s not just about one person, but it’s about everyone.”

Bollin said he could sense this summer that this season had the makings of being something special.

“I thought we’d have a nice season, but, no, I wasn’t expecting 10-1,” he said. “But, in the summer, I knew when everyone was there and together, we were tough to beat.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Bedford’s Andrew Hollinger works for an opening while surrounded by Monroe defenders last season. (Middle) Bedford boys basketball coach Jordan Bollin. (Below) Hollinger brings the Mules up court during a 63-43 win Friday. (Action photos by Tom Hawley and Mike Doughty, respectively, and courtesy of the Monroe News.)