By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
It’s inaccurate, of course, to say this Michigan high school girls basketball season all comes down to this week – but lot will be decided over the next seven days.
League tournaments for those sponsoring them all will be in full swing – with the Detroit Public School League’s champion decided this weekend. More league races remain ever-changing. And on Sunday, for the first time, District brackets will be published with limited seeding separating the top two teams until a possible meeting in the title-deciding final.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Michigan Center 65, Grass Lake 55 – The Cardinals avenged a Dec. 18 five-point loss to move into a first-place tie in the Cascades Conference with Grass Lake, and both are among leaders in Division 3 MPR statewide with Grass Lake No. 8 and Michigan Center No. 17.
2. Sault Ste. Marie 43, St. Ignace 29 – The Straits Area Conference is a two-team race and very well could end with a shared title as the Blue Devils avenged a three-point loss from Dec. 20 in this matchup between the No. 5 team in Division 2 and No. 2 in Division 4 Saints.
3. Grosse Pointe South 50, Macomb Dakota 47 – These Blue Devils moved up to No. 15 in Division 1 MPR and own a share of the Macomb Area Conference Red title, although Dakota can take back a share if GPS falls tonight to rival Grosse Pointe North.
4. East Lansing 57, DeWitt 42 – The Trojans moved up to No. 2 in Division 1 MPR entering this week and took a two-game lead in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue by finishing a sweep of last season’s co-champ.
5. Muskegon Reeths-Puffer 54, Jenison 51 – The Rockets, No. 17 in Division 1 MPR, avenged a Jan. 10 loss to send Jenison into a first place tie in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black with Muskegon – and with a rematch against the Big Reds and title opportunity coming up Friday.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Holt (12-2) Expectations have been high for a while for this current group of Rams, and they’re making good catapulting a team that won nine games two years ago and finished 12-11 last season. Friday’s 51-41 win over Okemos pushed Holt into second place in the CAAC Blue and quite possibly past the Chiefs into the second seed in their District.
Midland Dow (13-2) It’s tough to say Dow needed a minute to get rolling this season given that its only losses were to Howell (11-3) and Midland (14-1). But after sending their entire backcourt to college ball last spring, the Chargers are back to full power with nine straight wins including their last three over the other top-four teams in the Saginaw Valley League Red – Midland, Bay City John Glenn and Saginaw Heritage.
Clare (13-2) Despite falling last week for the second time to second-place Pinconning, Clare continues to lead a Jack Pine Conference featuring five of eight teams that have won at least nine games. The Pioneers finished second in the JPC last season to Houghton Lake, which moved into the Highland Conference this school year, and has a great shot to close this title run. Clare’s final three league games are against teams it beat by an average of 12 points the first time around.
Portland (15-1) The Raiders have won 14 straight since falling to Williamston (12-3) on Dec. 6, and Friday against Lansing Catholic can clinch a share of the CAAC White title – a solid feat considering four of six teams in the league are 10-5 or better. Portland’s defense has been stifling, as it hasn’t allowed more than 30 points in a game in nearly a month – since defeating CAAC Red leader Haslett on Jan. 14
Brooklyn Columbia Central (15-2) The Golden Eagles can clinch a second-straight Lenawee County Athletic Association title Friday at Blissfield and edged the Royals by four points when they met Jan. 10. BCC also beat second-place Ida twice by single digits, but otherwise haven’t been challenged a lot outside of their losses to reigning Division 4 champion Adrian Lenawee Christian (13-1) and Division 2 Parma Western (12-2).
Calumet (11-3) A three-game losing stretch to start calendar year 2020 knocked Calumet off track for a minute, but the Copper Kings are back on their game and have won six straight. They hold a slim lead in the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference West with three league games to play, and have a chance tonight to avenge the first of their losses, to Negaunee (12-3), after falling by 15 in their Jan. 2 meeting.
Allen Park Inter-City Baptist (11-0) The three-time reigning champion Chargers are sitting atop the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue standings with their first of two meetings with second-place Plymouth Christian Academy (12-3) coming up Friday. They also own impressive wins over Division 1 Lincoln Park (10-4) and Division 2 Flat Rock (14-3), with another telling matchup coming up Thursday against Division 3 contender Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (14-4).
Athens (12-2) The Indians downed second-place Bellevue 50-28 last week to extend their lead in the Southern Central Athletic Association West after finishing second to the Broncos a year ago. Since falling on opening night to Battle Creek Calhoun Christian (9-5), Athens’ only other defeat this winter has come to SCAA East co-leader Pittsford (15-1) by seven on Jan. 17. Athens sees the other co-leader Camden-Frontier (15-1) on Wednesday.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Wednesday – Farmington Hills Mercy (14-1) at Detroit Edison (13-0) – Contenders statewide in Divisions 1 and 2, respectively, face off, with Edison carrying a 38-game winning streak.
Friday – Detroit Cass Tech (15-1) vs. Detroit Renaissance (15-2) at University of Detroit Mercy – The champions of the East and West divisions, respectively, will meet for the first time this season in the Detroit Public School League Tournament final.
Friday – West Bloomfield (11-3) at Clarkton (12-3) – A 73-47 West Bloomfield win in their Jan. 9 meeting has been the difference in the Lakers leading the Oakland Activities Association Red and the Wolves trailing by a game.
Friday – Kent City (15-1) at Morley Stanwood (13-1) – The Eagles can clinch a share of the Central State Activities Association Silver title after also handing Morley Stanwood its lone loss 75-33 on Jan. 21.
Friday – East Kentwood (11-3) at Hudsonville (14-0) – The Eagles won the first meeting 45-41 on Jan. 17 and hold a one-game lead in the O-K Red over the three-time reigning champ Falcons because of it.
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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.)