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.)

'Invaluable' Hancock Nearing Half-Century of Service to Cheboygan Athletics

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

December 2, 2022

When Cheboygan hosts Ogemaw Heights next week to kick off a new boys basketball season, those attending will see something special.

And really, for Cheboygan and its opponents, it’s nothing new. It’s been going on for five decades.

The special part? Scott Hancock, junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach, is starting his 47th year coaching at the school. Forty-five of those years have been in the same role he has this season.

“It really just means I’m getting old, but I feel very fortunate to be able to do something that I love for this long,” Hancock, himself a Cheboygan product of 1976, reflected on his tenure. “To be honest, I never really thought about how long I would do it. It’s just something I love doing, so I never really put a number on how long I would do it.”

As the campaign starts, though, he has thoughts of coaching high school basketball for six and possibly seven decades before he hangs it up. He has coached his sons — Nick, who owns the Cheboygan career steals record; and Brian, the leader in career made 3-pointers — and now he’s looking forward to the possibility of coaching his two grandchildren, Landon Gahn and Lincoln Hancock.

“Well, all I can say is I have a grandson that is 3 years old, and I would love to hang around coaching until he graduates,” Hancock said of how long he thinks he’ll stay in coaching. “I have loved every year. 

“I have coached with a lot of great coaches who are all great friends to this day.”

Included among those coaches are his two sons, who served as assistants for Cheboygan, and Jason Friday, the current varsity coach who also played for Hancock during the early 1990s – a time when Hancock briefly stepped in to fill a varsity coaching vacancy after the sudden departure of the previous head coach.

Friday, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, is not at all surprised his former coach is still in the game. It became a factor in Friday’s decision to take over the boys program three years ago.

“If you're a boy who grew up in Cheboygan, there's a good chance that Scott coached you in something,” Friday said. “He has a grandson who is in eighth grade, and he wants to coach him.

“So yes, I knew he was going to be around for several more years.”

And next week, Friday will be thrilled to have Hancock alongside him on the court as Cheboygan opens up with the Falcons.

“Today, I don't look at Scott as one of my former varsity coaches — he's a friend,” Friday said. “We're friends more than anything, and that makes coaching even more fun for me.   

“Most importantly, having someone on the bench that you can trust is invaluable.”

Hancock, second from left, confers last season with assistant Matt Mylnarchek, head coach Jason Friday and player Dylan Balazovic. Hancock, who was helping with the boys program when Friday was coaching the Cheboygan girls team, began expecting to coach with his former player some time ago.

“I was very fortunate to have both my sons be assistant coaches for our varsity program,” said Hancock, who also has served decades coaching baseball and keeping stats for the football program. “But as far as being head coach, I always thought Jason would take over at some time.

“It’s awesome to have a former player running our program, but it is no surprise,” he continued. “Jason has always been a student of the game and is very detailed, and what he does, our program is in great hands.”

The mutual trust the coaches share has really benefited the Cheboygan student-athletes.

“I think it is important to have a JV coach who the head coach can trust that he has bought in to all of the beliefs of the head coach’s program,” Hancock noted. “Being loyal to your varsity coach and doing what’s best for your program is the most important aspect of JV coaching.

“And, getting kids to buy in to what it takes to play the game the right way.”

That’s one of the strengths Hancock brings to the basketball program, Friday singled out.

“Coach Hancock does a tremendous job teaching the fundamentals, but also does a great job communicating with the boys, making each one feel valued, even those who don't play as much,” Friday said. “He's at every practice.

“If there's an emergency and I need to step out for a minute and put my AD hat on, he can run practice and we don't miss a beat,” Friday continued. “He has a tremendous knowledge of the game and is a coach anyone would love on their bench.”

Hancock, who assists another former player, Kevin Baller, coaching the baseball team, has no thoughts of getting back into a varsity coaching position.

“I have no plans to coach at the varsity level, and the reason is because I have the best of both worlds by coaching JV,” said Hancock, who sees the 3-point shot as the biggest change in the game during his tenure. “Every coach that I have worked for lets me be involved with the varsity, so really I get to be involved in both.”

Friday recalls wishing as a player that Hancock had stayed at the helm when he took over temporarily. But, he loves having him coach with him today.

“After our junior season, we were told he was going back to JV,” Friday said.  “We tried to convince him to stay for one more year, but he wanted to go back.

“There's no way I could be varsity basketball coach and athletic director without having a JV coach like Scotty.”

Off the court successes in life are just as importance as athletic endeavors, Hancock indicated. In fact, those give him the most pride.

“Probably helping kids with off-the-court issues makes me feel better than anything,” he said. “Also hearing from the kids that I’ve coached after they graduate and how much they enjoyed their JV year.”

There aren’t many – if any – parent, player or community member names on a complaint list from Hancock’s first five decades, and there’s not likely to be any more in however many years are ahead.

“When you’ve coached in the same small town for nearly 50 years, you’d expect to have a few people upset with you, but not Scotty,” said Friday. “You can’t find a person who says something bad about him. 

“He’s extremely well-respected,” he continued. “You absorb his passion and love of the game just by being around him, and all of Cheboygan should be thankful (for) how much he's done for our community.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Cheboygan assistant boys basketball coach Scott Hancock offers some pointers during a scrimmage last week. (Middle) Hancock, second from left, confers last season with assistant Matt Mylnarchek, head coach Jason Friday and player Dylan Balazovic. (Photos courtesy of Jared Greenleaf/Cheboygan Daily Tribune.)