By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Girls basketball season tipped off last week, providing new beginnings for 721 teams all over our state.
And at least a few have to be excited about early – and perhaps unexpected – returns.
Each week during the regular season, we’ll glance at four teams from each class that have caught our attention. This week’s list includes a few already on the way to improving on their finishes from a year ago. (Results and records below are based on schedules posted at MHSAA.com.)
Grand Haven (2-0) – The Buccaneers’ comeback from 7-15 a year ago is underway. They started 1-5 last winter, but started erasing that memory with a 46-32 win over Traverse City West followed by a 61-44 win over Traverse City Central.
Haslett (2-0) – The Vikings graduated three four-year varsity players from last season’s Class B runner-up, which combined with the move into Class A might have made for lower expectations this winter. But wins over Eaton Rapids (54-40) and Okemos (64-27) were an impressive way to restart.
Macomb Dakota (1-0) – If the season opener is an indication, the Cougars could be lined up for a nice rebound from 5-16. They played only once last week, but earned a 54-45 win over Rochester Adams, which finished 15-7 a year ago.
Waterford Kettering (1-0) – Kettering’s 23-2 run last season came to an end with a 51-42 loss to Bloomfield Hills Marian, which went on to win the Class A title. The Captains should expect more good things this winter after beating Marian 36-34 in the opener.
Jonesville (2-0) – The Comets won the Michigan Center Furman Classic by sweeping the same opponents it split with at last year’s opening event. Jonesville, coming off a 12-10 finish, beat Detroit Allen 65-24 and then Michigan Center 54-45 after losing to the host a year ago.
Manistee (2-0) – Coach Todd Erickson retired after leading the team to a 23-2 finish in 2014-15, but Kenn Kott's second tenure with the program opened with a 63-34 win over Scottville Mason County Central and then a 51-43 victory over Traverse City St. Francis, which finished 22-3 last season.
Portland (2-0) – The Raiders’ finish of 13-10 a year ago was solid but down a few wins from Portland’s norm. There’s plenty of reason for optimism again after the Raiders opened by downing Grand Ledge 54-45 and Laingsburg 41-38 in overtime; the Comets were Class A semifinalists two seasons ago, and Laingsburg made the Semifinals in Class C last winter.
Reed City (1-1) – The Coyotes are the only team on this list that lost a game last week, but the opening night win was that important. Reed City’s 48-44 victory over Leroy Pine River was its first win since the 2013-14 season.
Hanover-Horton (2-0) – These Comets beat Concord 61-49 and Homer 47-34; those teams won 18 and 21 games last season, respectively, while Hanover-Horton was 5-15 and lost last season’s opener to Concord by 16.
Hart (1-0) – It’s early, of course, but one win might say a lot for the Pirates. They started 0-3 a year ago with a two-point loss to North Muskegon on the way to 9-12 overall, but beat North Muskegon 55-45 to open last week.
Napoleon (2-0) – The Pirates are building on a 16-7 finish and District title from a year ago, and a 31-29 win over Pewamo-Westphalia (17-4 last season) in the opener was a solid way to start. Napoleon followed that with a 52-37 victory over Battle Creek Pennfield.
St. Ignace (2-0) – The Saints are back in Class C after winning Class D last season, and returned with a pair of wins over Class A teams. St. Ignace opened the Petoskey Invitational with a 51-49 victory over Brighton and followed with a 49-46 overtime win over Marquette.
Bark River-Harris (1-0) – The Broncos’ 21-3 run last season included two two-point wins over annual Class D power Crystal Falls Forest Park, and they opened this season with a 51-25 win over the Trojans thanks in part to 17 steals. Bark River-Harris outscored Forest Park 19-3 during the second quarter.
Colon (2-0) – The Magi had plenty to celebrate last week. They won close – 37-34 over Union City and then 58-55 in overtime over Jackson Christian – and in doing so equaled their victory total from last season.
Fowler (2-0) – The Eagles were on the verge of a nice run last season, finishing 10-12 with seven losses by six points or fewer. Last week was a good start on taking the next step, as Fowler downed Beal City 58-40 and Ovid-Elsie 52-46.
Manistee Catholic Central (2-0) – The Sabers rebounded from a slow start last season to win 10 of their final 12 games and finish 13-9, and that momentum may have rolled into this winter. MCC opened with a 48-32 win over Walkerville and another, 47-33, over Custer Mason County Eastern.
PHOTO: An Alma player drives to the basket while Ionia defends last week during the season opener for both teams. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)