By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – By Bree Salenbien’s admission, she was “kinda out of it” during Saturday morning’s Division 4 Final at Van Noord Arena.
But that gave Adrian Lenawee Christian a chance to show this year’s title was won by a fully talented team in addition to being paced by one of the state’s top sophomores.
The all-stater and no doubt early candidate for the 2021 Miss Basketball Award was as off as 17 points, 13 rebounds and six assists can be, perhaps. But junior sister Dani Salenbien scored a game-high 19 points, and as a team the Cougars held St. Ignace to its season low for points – and held on 48-46 to earn their second-straight championship after claiming the Class D title a year ago.
Scoring came to a standstill as both teams locked down defensively during the second half. Lenawee Christian didn’t even have a field goal during the fourth quarter and scored their second-fewest points of this winter. But the Cougars held onto the lead for all but 26 seconds of the final period and made a pair of defensive stops over the final two minutes to keep from relinquishing it at the end.
“(It showed) that we played together and we trust each other, and when one person’s down we’re going to pick each other up,” Dani Salenbien said. “We have girls who will step up when we need it, and that helps a lot. We are there to pick each other up no matter what.”
Lenawee Christian finished 26-2, its only losses to ranked Division 3 teams Grass Lake and Michigan Center. The Cougars are a combined 52-3 over the last two seasons – and of the seven players who saw the floor Saturday, only guard Brooke Brinning was a senior.
St. Ignace (27-1) was going for its first championship since winning Class C in 2015, and first 28-0 finish of its storied history. The Saints should also be considered major contenders again next season, as they’ll graduate significant senior forwards Emily Coveyou and Madison Olsen but are set to return the rest of this season’s roster.
The teams Saturday couldn’t have been more perfectly matched, with the 6-foot-2 Bree Salenbien and 6-foot Coveyou used to carrying the offensive loads for their respective teams while talented casts provided perhaps underrated contributions around them.
The score was tied 10 times and for 9 minutes and 35 seconds total. At the end of it all, the deciding basket may have been sunk just before halftime. After Bree Salenbien and St. Ignace sophomore guard Emmalee Hart traded 3-pointers to make the score 30-30 late in the second quarter, Dani Salenbien sank a 2-pointer with nine seconds to play in the first half that gave her team a slight edge heading into the break.
And Lenawee Christian would end up needing every point.
“I can kinda just tell if she’s in a little zone,” Cougars coach Jamie Salenbien said of his eldest daughter on the team. “And it looked like she was, so we just wanted to try to get her in good spots. She was feeling it tonight. … She’s got a real good change of speed, change of direction. So it helped at the end of the second quarter, when she got to the baseline and laid it in.”
St. Ignace made 30 percent of its shots from the floor for the game, and Lenawee Christian connected on 33 percent. St. Ignace applied its signature press, and the Cougars had 21 turnovers. Lenawee Christian had a plan to press as well during the fourth quarter – “but that got thrown out the window,” coach Jamie Salenbien said. “We just tried to hang on at the end. With the amount of good defense being played out there, it was hard to get good looks. … They were up in our grill.”
The Saints dominated below the basket as well, outscoring Lenawee Christian 28-10 in the paint. But the best “all-in” effort by Lenawee Christian – keeping with the team's motto this season – came in limiting St. Ignace’s 3-point shooting, as the Saints could connect on only 2 of 18 from beyond the arc.
“I’m proud of our kids, their stick-to-itiveness even though we couldn’t make a shot,” St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. “We kept at it, kept fighting. … We knew it was going to be an epic game, but we fell a little short. They definitely were there all heart, and I’m proud of them.”
Coveyou scored 17 points to lead St. Ignace, and sophomore guards Hallie Marshall and Hart both added 11 and combined for seven of the team’s nine points during the fourth quarter. Marshall also added three assists and four steals, and the defensive-minded Hart had six rebounds and one steal and many more contributions that didn’t show in the box score. Her basket during the final second made the final margin.
“Even though we didn’t win today and have the season we hoped for,” Coveyou said, “it still doesn’t take away from the awesome season we had.”
Bree Salenbien – who made the game-winner to send her team to the championship game a year ago – connected on only 3 of 14 shots Saturday. But Dani Salenbien made 6 of 11, and Brinning, junior guard Libby Miller and freshman guard Cara Anderson all added four points. Despite the lack of a field goal, the Cougars made 10 of 11 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, and Bree Salenbien finished 9 of 10 from the line for the game.
“I’m so proud of the culture these girls have created, led by my seniors Brooke and Grace (Beach), and our captain Dani and the rest of them. Everybody’s accepted their role in an era when, quite frankly, no one wants to share,” Jamie Salenbien said. “These girls are all about sharing, commitment, trust, love, sacrifice and their faith, and it’s carried us through to here.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Adrian Lenawee Christian players celebrate their second straight MHSAA Final win Saturday at Calvin College. (Middle) The Cougars’ Bree Salenbien (35) works to get to the basket with three Saints defending, including Emma Feleppa (42).
TECUMSEH – First, the good news: Nearly everyone on the Tecumseh girls basketball team has aspirations to play college basketball – and several of them at a very high level.
Now, the twist: There are only eight girls in the entire program.
Tecumseh head coach Kristy Zajac, starting her seventh season, is unfazed by the lack of numbers. Tecumseh will field just a varsity team this season but should contend for a Southeastern Conference White championship and pursue a deep playoff run as well.
“This is a great group of girls,” Zajac said. “At least six or seven of them want to play college basketball. The basketball IQ is so much higher than we have had in the past. We’ve never had a full team of basketball-first kids.”
Zajac said that dynamic has changed practices and the approach on the court.
“We do a lot more high-level skill stuff and high-level thinking,” she said. “We do more read-and-react stuff where they have to play on the fly, which makes us harder to scout. We want to try and give the kids a chance to use that basketball IQ and make opportunities for themselves on the floor so they can score without having to run a set play.”
The list of college prospects starts with her daughter, 6-foot-2 junior Alli Zajac. She holds about 15 Division I offers, and the list seems to grow daily.
She’s been receiving recruiting attention since before she played a game in high school. As a freshman, she was the Lenawee County Player of the Year and has been all-state both of her first two seasons. Last winter, she scored 433 points as Tecumseh went 20-5.
Her sister, Addi Zajac, hasn’t played a varsity game yet but has received a lot of attention as well as a college prospect after several great years of travel ball. She’s 6-foot and a true center.
“She wears a size 14 shoe,” Zajac said. “We are hoping next year she is 6-3 or 6-4. She has such a strong body; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone that strong at her age. She can push people around.”
The sisters are very different types of players. They also are extremely competitive, as witnessed when they play 1-on-1 at home.
“It usually ends in a fistfight,” Zajac said. “They are both very competitive.”
The team is loaded with more talent than just the Zajac sisters.
Sophomore Makayla Schlorf made 28 3-pointers last season, and sophomore Chloe Bollinger made 26. Junior Ashlyn Moorhead averaged just under double figures in scoring and averaged 3.7 assists a game last year. Junior Lauren Kilbarger also is back from last season and joined by newcomers Faith Wiedyk, a junior, sophomore Sophia Torres and freshman Amaria Brown.
Maddie VanBlack is another travel ball veteran but is out this season due to tearing an ACL.
Tecumseh athletic director Jon Zajac – Kristy’s husband – said it is disappointing Tecumseh won’t field a junior varsity team this year. He said kids playing travel ball in other sports, along with the youth of the current team, are factors.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “Hopefully this is the only year for that.”
Kristy (Maska) Zajac grew up near Tecumseh in Britton, played four years on the varsity and scored more than 1,800 career points under coach Bart Bartels, now an assistant on her staff. She played at Eastern Michigan University, where she was one of the top scorers in school history. Jon Zajac, played at EMU and professionally overseas.
The entire family is crazy about basketball. In addition to Alli and Addi, son Ryder played four years at Tecumseh before heading off to college to play football, and the youngest in the family, Avery, is a budding star in her own right.
“There were a few travel games this year where my team was short on numbers and Avery got to play with Addi and Alli,” Kristy Zajac said. “That was cool to see. She held her own. She won’t get to play with Alli in high school (Avery is in seventh grade), but she’ll get two years with Addi. I got to play with my sister, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.”
Jon Zajac stops by practice now and then to coach as well. He and Kristy coach Avery’s travel team.
“He is a great person to have as part of the program,” Kristy Zajac said of her husband. “Anytime I can get him to help with the post players and with the girls is great. He’s a huge help.”
The family often schedules trips around basketball and is seemingly always pulled in multiple directions as the three girls compete at various levels.
“It’s pretty much basketball all day, every day,” Zajac said. “It’s fun to see how the kids enjoy it and love the game.”
Tecumseh, which has won a combined 39 games over the past two seasons, has loaded up its schedule, playing a collection of nonconference teams that made deep tournament runs and won conference championships last season. Tecumseh plays in the Icebreaker event at Ypsilanti Arbor Prep against Detroit Country Day on Saturday and also faces Temperance-Bedford (23-1 last season), reigning Division 3 runner-up Blissfield and Grand Blanc.
Without a senior on the team and no JV squad, Tecumseh will play essentially this group for the next 50 or more games. It’s a two-year window with virtually the same team.
“We’re doing what we can to win this year,” Zajac said. “We want this year to be super successful. We are just taking it one game at a time and going from there. We want to keep building and getting better every day, every game. Hopefully by the end of next year, we’ll be where we need to be.”
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 [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Tecumseh’s Alli Zajac makes her move toward the lane last season against Adrian. (Middle) Kristy Zajac coaches her team, which finished 20-5 in 2022-23. (Photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne/Adrian Daily Telegram.)