DeWitt Sees Way to 1st Final since 1977

March 20, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – DeWitt girls basketball coach Bill McCullen has seen the motivation for his team’s longest tournament run in nearly 40 years in the eyes of his players for months.

His five seniors found their determination in the eyes of their former teammates at the ends of the last three seasons.

Most years, McCullen carries a few underclassmen on varsity. That additional time molds those players into the next team leaders – and also has allowed these seniors the chance to experience first-hand the disappointment of ending the last three seasons in the District tournament.

DeWitt played in its fourth MHSAA Semifinal on Friday of McCullen’s 19 seasons as coach. The Panthers will play for its first championship since 1977 on Saturday thanks to a 44-36 win over Saginaw Heritage – and the motivation they gained from falling short earlier in their careers.

“More toward the end of every season, we’re not happy with how we finish. That fuels every season from there after,” four-year varsity guard Claudia Reid said. “We get a little farther each time, but it’s always ended in disappointment.

“… (And) the seniors who graduated before us, that we played with when we were in the younger grades, we saw how they went out,” three-year senior forward Abby Nakfoor continued. “We’ve seen how much heartbreak they had to go through with that, and we didn’t want to go out with a loss.”

DeWitt (25-1) will face reigning champion Bloomfield Hills Marian in Saturday’s noon championship game at MSU.

The Panthers had last played in an MHSAA Semifinal in 2009, in Class B. They made the jump into Class A for the 2011-12 school year, and this winter for the first time found similar tournament success.

Seniors Maria Moss, Cayce Palmer and Alex Bilbo all joined Nakfoor and Reid with the varsity as sophomores in 2012-13 and were part of a league title team that winter. But the team didn’t advance past the second game of the District either of the last two.

“I’ve seen it in their eyes, and this goes back months and months and months,” McCullen said. “These kids … have been through a lot. Knee injuries, blood clots on the brain and all kinds of things. We just have some kids that don’t want to be denied right now.”

They had to answer only once Friday, but at a crucial juncture as the Hawks appeared on the verge of breaking away after pushing to get back even.

DeWitt led by as many as eight points during the first half, but found itself slowed way down by the Hawks’ zone defense and trailing 19-18 three minutes into the third quarter after a basket by Heritage sophomore Haley Brefka.

But the Panthers didn’t allow the Hawks to gain a foothold. The teams traded a few shots and turnovers over the next three minutes before Reid found Moss on a transition bucket that seemed to kick the pace back in DeWitt’s favor.

The Panthers’ seniors scored 21 of the team’s 23 points the rest of the way.

Reid finished with 11 points and six assists and Nakfoor added eight points and five rebounds. Junior center Lilly George added eight points and six rebounds.

Saginaw Heritage coach Vonnie DeLong spoke after of her senior guards Allie Miller and Aubree Snow, who combined for 19 points, six rebounds and six assists.

Her words could've applied to DeWitt’s veterans as well. 

“You don’t get here without guard play. It just doesn’t happen,” DeLong said. “That’s usually who wins it, teams with good guard play. Guards will carry you this far.”

Heritage finished 24-4 after its longest tournament run since winning Class A in 2002.  The Hawks played two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior with their senior guards – and should bring back a number of players with valuable experience for another run next winter after making one that DeLong admitted most in Michigan probably didn’t expect.

“I’m disappointed I couldn’t play one last game here, and with this team,” Snow said. “But we did come this far, so I’m proud of that.”

Click for a full box score and video from the press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) DeWitt’s Claudia Reid drives to the basket with Heritage’s Allie Miller (20) defending Friday. (Middle) Miller looks for an opening with Reid closing off part of the lane.

Few in Number, Tecumseh Pursuing Sizable Success with Zajacs Setting Pace

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

December 5, 2023

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. 

Southeast & BorderNow, 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.” 

Kristy Zajac coaches her team, which finished 20-5 in 2022-23. 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 DonnellyDoug 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.)