By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There is at least one similarity that ties together all four Division 4 teams making the trip to Calvin College this weekend.
All four semifinalists have seen their shares of tough opponents this season and shouldn’t be wowed by the competition beginning Thursday night at Van Noord Arena.
St. Ignace, Adrian Lenawee Christian and Kingston navigated those schedules to finish among the top-ranked teams by The Associated Press at the end of the regular season. Fowler, in part a result of playing mostly larger opponents, had a few more losses entering the playoffs – but has shown the last three weeks it belongs among the best in the smallest classification as well.
Division 4 Semifinals – Thursday
St. Ignace (26-0) vs. Kingston (24-2), 5:30 p.m.
Fowler (17-7) vs. Adrian Lenawee Christian (24-2), 7:30 p.m.
Division 4 Final – Saturday, 10 a.m.
Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Divisions 4 and 1). All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a pay-per-view basis. All four Finals will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit and streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports app. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a glance at all four semifinalists. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.)
ADRIAN LENAWEE CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 24-2, No. 2
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Coach: Jamie Salenbien, second season (50-3)
Championship history: Class D champion 2018, runner-up 2010.
Best wins: 65-40 over No. 9 Athens in Regional Semifinal, 53-38 over Bay City John Glenn, 47-41 over Carleton Airport, 73-66 (OT) over Ann Arbor Pioneer.
Players to watch: Bree Salenbien, 6-2 soph. F (23.6 ppg, 42 3-pointers, 9.0 rpg, 3.6 spg, 3.7 bpg); Dani Salenbien, 5-9 jr. G (13.6 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.2 spg).
Outlook: After storming onto the scene last season, Lenawee Christian and now-sophomore Bree Salenbien haven’t snuck up on anyone this winter. It hasn’t mattered. The Cougars’ only losses came to Division 3 Michigan Center and Grass Lake, which finished their seasons a combined 40-6. Bree was the Class D Player of the Year by The Associated Press as a freshman, and Dani Salenbien made the all-state second team. Junior guard Libby Miller is another major offensive contributor, averaging 9.5 points per game with 65 3-pointers entering this week.
Record/rank: 17-7, unranked
League finish: Fifth in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Coach: Nathan Goerge, ninth season (98-102)
Championship history: Class D champion 1991, runner-up 1990 & 1999.
Best wins: 48-34 over No. 5 Gaylord St. Mary in Quarterfinal, 49-29 over Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary in Regional Final, 43-38 over Bath, 57-25 over Portland St. Patrick.
Players to watch: Sarah Veale, 5-8 soph. G (11.3 ppg, 49 3-pointers); Mia Riley, 5-6 fr. G (11.7 ppg).
Outlook: Fowler has reached the Semifinals for the first time since 1999 after navigating a league won by Division 3 contender Pewamo-Westphalia and with three other teams that won at least 14 games this season. The Eagles finished below .500 the last two before taking a jump, and Veale and Riley are among reasons for Fowler to be excited about the future as well. Riley actually comes off the bench – three seniors and a junior join Veale in a veteran starting lineup.
Record/rank: 24-2, No. 4
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Stars
Coach: Jay Green, 12th season (240-46)
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 55-34 over Croswell-Lexington, 43-30 over Brown City, 51-31 over Peck, 49-31 over Saginaw Nouvel.
Players to watch: Carley Smith, 5-10 sr. F (9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); Lily Lyons, 5-6 sr. G (11.2 ppg).
Outlook: After losing in Quarterfinals three times over the last four seasons, Kingston has broken through to make the Semifinals for the first time. The Cardinals have prepared all season facing larger opponents; in addition to those listed above, Kingston also has wins over Lapeer and Saginaw Swan Valley among others and losses to Division 1 Oxford and Utica Eisenhower. Smith, Lyons and 5-11 senior center Jillyan Dinsmore (6.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) all earned all-state honorable mentions as juniors and help make up an all-senior starting lineup.
Record/rank: 26-0, No. 1
League finish: First in Straits Area Conference
Coach: Dorene Ingalls, 20th season (431-73)
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 76-45 over No. 10 Baraga in Quarterfinal, 52-44 over Goodrich, 68-37 over Division 2 honorable mention Kingsley, 55-53 over Detroit Mumford, 63-59 (OT) over Division 3 honorable mention Reese.
Players to watch: Emily Coveyou, 6-0 sr. F (22.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 3.8 spg); Hallie Marshall, 5-5 soph. G (7.7 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.4 spg).
Outlook: St. Ignace has reached the final week of the season every season this decade, and is back at the Semifinals for the first time since 2015 coming off three seasons in Class C. Coveyou earned a Class C all-state honorable mention a year ago and puts up the biggest numbers, but eight Saints total score at least 4.8 ppg and she’s one of only two seniors on the roster. The defensive showing has been especially memorable – as a team, St. Ignace gives up only 31.1 points per game and takes away an incredible 22.5 steals per contest.
PHOTO: Lenawee Christian's Bree Salenbien brings the ball upcourt during Tuesday's Quarterfinal win over Fruitport Calvary Christian. (Photo by Mike Dickie Photography.)
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.)