By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Warren Cousino girls basketball coach Mike Lee saw a lot of his 2016 team in watching Flushing move past his current contender during Friday’s first Class A Semifinal at the Breslin Center.
The Patriots had stormed to their first MHSAA championship a year ago seemingly out of nowhere with an awe-inspiring run that remained the talk into this season.
Just as unheralded entering these playoffs, Flushing is one win way from accomplishing a similar feat after getting past Cousino and Miss Basketball finalist Kierra Fletcher 52-36.
The Semifinal was the Raiders’ first since 1976, and Saturday’s noon championship game against East Kentwood will be the program’s first appearance on the season’s final day.
“I felt that at the beginning we knew we were going to have to get respect,” Flushing senior forward Bre Perry said. “After we got out of the District, people were doubting us, but I felt that if we just stuck together, we’d be just fine. Because we know each other well, we play together as a team really well, we always have each other’s backs … (and) I knew if we stuck together, we’d be able to get very far.”
The Raiders really have been together for a while. They’ve played on the same teams since middle school, and Perry and seniors Kamryn Chappell and Lauren Newman are four-year varsity starters. Senior Carson Wilson joined them as a sophomore, and over the last three seasons the team is 66-7 with three league and two District titles plus the Regional championship won last week.
Flushing (23-3) didn’t lose a game during the Flint Metro League season, and its losses were to Class A top-five teams Saginaw Heritage and Midland Dow early and Class B No. 1 Ypsilanti Arbor Prep at the end of the regular season. The Raiders avenged that loss over Dow in the Regional Final and have broken opponents with a balanced offense and stifling defense that has given up 40 points in a game only three times.
“When you’ve never been here you’re certainly never overconfident in your ability to get here,” Flushing coach Larry Ford said of Breslin. “But watching these guys prior to seventh and eighth grade, and in middle school and then when they got into high school, this is the most athletic team I’ve ever coached in my 13 years as head coach at Flushing. Then they’ve got basketball skills to go with it, and they work so well together.”
Ford thought last year’s team was capable of making this run, but Perry – who will play next season at Temple University – tore a knee ligament and was lost for the end of the season.
And besides, 2015-16 belonged to Cousino and Fletcher, who enjoyed a similar under-the-radar status on the way to Breslin – but didn’t surprise anyone this winter.
Cousino entered the postseason ranked No. 2, and Fletcher – who will play at Georgia Tech – averaged 22.7 points, 13 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 5.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game entering this week. She put up 30 points in Friday’s Semifinal despite being taken to the floor by a painful cramp just more than a minute into the second half.
But by then, Flushing already had set the tone.
The Raiders rode a 9-1 run over the end of the first quarter and start of the second and led by 13 at halftime. They scored one fewer point in the first quarter than Cousino did over the first two – and locked down the Patriots aside from Fletcher’s heroic run.
She scored all but one of Cousino’s 12 field goals. Minus Fletcher, Cousino made only one of 29 shots from the field as Wilson in particular led the suffocating effort.
Flushing doesn’t have a player averaging more than 12 points per game, but Perry led in this one with 16 points and seven rebounds, with Newman scoring 14 points and junior Shelby Morrow adding 13.
Cousino admittedly knew this year’s run would be tougher, and the Patriots were up to the challenge winning a strong Macomb Area Conference Red before extending their MHSAA Tournament run to 14 straight wins.
“What this group was able to do over two years, from everyone pronouncing our name wrong … to this point, it was about remembering our name. No matter if the team was 1-19 we were facing that night or 20-0, we were going to get everyone’s best effort,” Lee said. “And (our players) knew that.”
“I feel a lot of pride. We didn’t end the season exactly the way we wanted to, but I wouldn’t have written this any other way,” Fletcher added. “Last year what we did was amazing. I think this year it’s even more amazing that we got back because people thought last year was a fluke. We used that as motivation to help us get back to Breslin. … Most people don’t get here once, so getting here twice is even better.”
The only championship banner hanging in Flushing’s gym celebrates the 1977 girls golf title. Every practice Newman noticed it, and figured there should be a basketball team up there as well.
These Raiders have their chance to become the first.
“It would be really special to be able to look back and say we went from seventh grade, to eighth grade, ninth, 10th, 11th, and we’ve been together this long and get to win this all together after all that time,” Perry said. “It would be amazing, after college, when we get back in touch (and say), ‘Remember when we got that ring?’”
PHOTOS: (Top) Flushing's Kamryn Chappell works to get past Warren Cousino’s Aubrey Fetzer (5) on Friday. (Middle) Cousino’s Kierra Fletcher looks for an open teammate.
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.)