By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – Michigan, meet Bree Salenbien – the Adrian Lenawee Christian freshman who stands as tall as a center, plays like a guard, and made a shot Thursday that most seniors never get a chance to launch.
The 6-foot-2 Cougars standout instantly may have bought herself three more years of statewide expectations by draining the winner in her team’s 46-44 Class D Semifinal overtime win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.
But if her full-game performance at Van Noord Arena was an indication, she’ll be up for all of them.
Salenbien’s pull-up jumper from just inside the free throw line with four seconds to play gave her the last of 16 points – and sent her team to its first MHSAA championship game since 2010.
Lenawee Christian (25-1) will face Chassell at 10 a.m. Saturday with a first girls basketball title in school history on the line – and another chance to show a statewide audience more of this phenom and her teammates from the southeastern corner.
“It’s really fun. But I think the whole team is showing the state who we are, not just me,” Salenbien said. “We’ve battled through so many games this year. That one loss helped us this year not want to feel that way again, to battle through everything.
“We knew we’d have to fight like that to the end.”
That lone defeat, by one to Class A Monroe on Jan. 9, clearly was a learning experience for a team with lots of talent but only one senior.
But it will be buried by the memories Salenbien and her teammates continue to make this weekend and the next few years to come.
She finished with eight rebounds, four assists, three blocks and six steals to go with those 16 points against a Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart team that was undefeated entering the night and playing in its third straight Semifinals. Salenbien also had to contend at times with Irish 6-foot all-stater Sophia Ruggles, who finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.
The teams were deadlocked 13 times, and the lead changed 11. Only six points were scored during overtime – two free throws by Ruggles 27 seconds in, followed by two by Salenbien with 1:05 to play and then her game-winner at the end.
Salenbien actually missed a free throw with 12 seconds left in regulation that would’ve given her team a one-point lead. But, as Sacred Heart coach Damon Brown noted, the freshman plays well beyond her years – and was about to show it again.
“She doesn’t always,” said Dani’s father and Lenawee Christian coach, Jamie Salenbien. “But when she does, it’s because of the time she’s put in. All of the kids on this team are committed to fundamentals, the coaching staff preaches it and pushes it, and they’ve bought into it and put a lot of time in when no one was there. But she has a lot of athletic gifts God gave her, and she’s using them now at the young age of 14.
“I’m proud of her hanging tough when she could’ve folded, after missing that free throw especially.”
Sophomore guard Dani Salenbien, Bree’s sister and Jamie’s daughter as well, added 11 points and four blocks.
Lenawee Christian’s “gamers,” as Jamie Salenbien called them, contended with a Sacred Heart lineup returning all five starters from last year’s run. Junior guard Scout Nelson added 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, senior Grace Reetz had five steals and five points – including a late 3-pointer that nearly became the game winner – and seniors Megan Nowak and Hadyn Terwilliger finished with five points and seven rebounds, respectively.
Certainly unexpected, Sacred Heart’s full starting lineup and one senior sub entered the postgame press conference full of smiles and laughter.
The Irish (25-1) went a combined 94-10 over the last four seasons, and wins came off the court as well as on. Brown talked about how he nearly left coaching after the 2013-14 season and the death of his wife, Sacred Heart boys basketball coach Keisha Brown, after her fight with cancer. Last season, the Irish ended their tournament run in the Semifinals on March 16 – three days before the death of Haydn Terwilliger’s mother Denise, who also fought cancer.
“We’ve been through these last four years together, and I think that’s why we’re so happy with each other,” Brown said. “From what we’ve been through, this game in no shape or form defines what this team has been through. We’ve held hands through the darkest times. … What we have here is more important than any score.”
And Reetz took the opportunity to lighten the mood one last time.
“This is kind’ve how our team is,” she said. “We laugh about everything. Sophie had 999 career points. It’s sad, but it’s just kinda humorous. (Ruggles actually finished her career with exactly 1,000.)
“I just feel like we all feel we couldn’t have done anything else out there. It’s just kinda a toss-up. We tried our best, we wanted a state title, but being together is enough for us.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Bree Salenbien, right, hugs her sister Dani after making the game-winning shot in Thursday’s second Class D Semifinal. (Middle) Bree Salenbien pops a shot as Sophia Ruggles (15), Hadyn Terwilliger (13) and Megan Nowak (4) surround her.
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.)