By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Rickea Jackson was the freshman last year, an all-stater in the making, but also the player getting triple teamed by opponents as the most immensely talented of Detroit Edison Public School Academy’s lineup.
On the sideline, coach Monique Brown almost couldn’t watch as her star kept getting “smashed” by opponents. But Jackson wouldn’t let her get down.
“I’d be looking to the side, and she said, ‘Coach, next year,’” Brown recalled Saturday after their season ended in a way neither could have fully expected. “She knew she had eighth graders who were going to be ninth graders who would be able to help her out.”
They sure did.
A program that had never won a District title before this winter won this season’s Class C championship edging Pewamo-Westphalia 46-44 with freshmen combining to score half of those points to follow Jackson’s game-high 21.
“Our dream has finally come true,” Jackson said. “(Coach) would get frustrated on the sideline. But when I was hugging her (Saturday), I told her, ‘I’ve got you, and I will always have your back – no matter what.’”
DEPSA finished this season 21-5, and as players piled onto each other in hugs and screams on the Breslin Center floor, there was only one question left to ask:
Was this just the first of celebrations to come?
In addition to playing numerous freshmen, the Pioneers blazed this trail without a senior – paced also by two juniors to go with Jackson, the lone sophomore and an all-state second teamer this winter.
“People are saying the season is over," said DEPSA freshman Gabrielle Elliott, who made the all-state first team, “but it’s just beginning.”
For these players, yes. But the program’s beginnings were far more humble.
DEPSA’s team is six years old, and Brown has led it from the start. The Pioneers have had winning records every season, but played the first with only six players – and finished their last game that winter, a District Final, with only three on the floor.
A loss Saturday wouldn’t have made this season less successful – something Pewamo-Westphalia coach Steve Eklund also emphasized to his players as they fell into heartache after just missing on a first championship as well.
DEPSA pushed its lead to nine just more than a minute into the fourth quarter, but P-W – which trailed for all but 14 seconds of the game when the score was tied – whittled the advantage down to one point with 1:19 to play.
The Pioneers drained most of the clock before P-W was forced to foul, and the Pirates looked to catch a break after a missed free throw – but a scramble that saw at least three players dive to the floor ended with the ball back in DEPSA’s hands. Another P-W foul and another Pioneers missed free throw, and the Pirates got the ball back for what looked to be a final attempt to take the lead – but a 3-point attempt from the corner was enveloped by DEPSA freshman Shaulana Wagner and tossed out of bounds.
“As I was going, I was just like, don’t make them score because then we’ll be down,” said Wagner, who has been working through a left ankle injury and seemed to re-aggravate it earlier in the half. “The energy from the crowd and my team picking me up, it gave me the energy to get that.”
The Pirates had one last chance then inbounding the ball with 3.4 seconds to play – but the pass from the corner never made it safely in, knocking off the leg of a DEPSA player and then off P-W on the deflection.
“They’re long. Their arms were everywhere,” Pirates junior Emily Spitzley said. “It was just a blur."
“Five seconds after that inbounds play I told myself I should’ve run the other one. It’s amazing a whole season comes down to just five seconds,” Eklund added.
“I just told the girls no regrets. You’ll have a lot of people come up and tell you what an awesome game it was. You’re going to get tired of saying thank you, but mean it.”
P-W will continue to be a force as well, as freshman Hannah Spitzley led this time with 17 points as her all-state second-team sister Emily had 15.
Jackson added nine rebounds and three blocks to her game-high 21 points, and Wagner had 12 points and two blocks.
“It definitely started off a couple years ago with our middle school program,” Brown said. “To get them to stay with me was a little tough, so when they came over (to high school), when they decided, yes, we will continue to stay here with you and continue this roll with you, we started in August running on the track and in the weight room. We were just trying to build our bodies because I knew we would have to go against seniors going off to college.
“When they committed themselves to that, I knew we had something. But not until the 9 o’clock p.m. practices on Friday nights – then I thought we might have a championship team. And the 5 in the morning practices … everyone showed up, and I commend the ladies for that.”
PHOTOS: (Top) DEPSA’s Rickea Jackson rises above a pair of P-W defenders to launch a shot Saturday. (Middle) Pirates junior Emily Spitzley drives around a Pioneers player during the Class C Final.
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.)