Fremont Builds on Coach's Inspiration to Become League, District Champion

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

March 14, 2024

FREMONT – The Fremont girls basketball team entered this season with relatively low expectations.

West MichiganThree straight sub-.500 seasons with double-digit losses and a new coach didn’t necessarily have the Packers considered as one of the top contenders in the West Michigan Conference.

Peter Zerfas, who won more than 300 games over 21 seasons as Fremont’s boys coach, was hired last April to help rejuvenate the struggling program. 

“I think the girls might have been a little nervous of me at first, and didn’t really have that high of expectations,” Zerfas said. “But I told them on the first day of practice we could win the conference.”

Fremont hadn’t won an outright conference championship since 1978. Yes, 46 years ago, although the Packers did share the league title with Big Rapids in 2020.

So what did the players think when their new coach mentioned such a lofty goal?

“I thought we always had the potential to be good. and I thought we had the athletes to be good the past few years,” said senior Jessica Bennett, a four-year varsity player. “He said we were going to be conference champs this year, and when he said that no one really believed him. I sure didn't.

“I thought we could be good and win some more games, but it's hard to have faith in someone you don’t really know.”

Senior Katie Ackerman, a three-year player, also had her doubts.

“I thought that was a really big goal, and I didn't believe him at first,” she said.

The Packers opened the season with a loss to Spring Lake, but then reeled off 10 wins over their next 11 games.

They defeated Whitehall on the road Jan. 10 and moved to 4-0 in conference play, but the major turning point came two weeks later when they knocked off five-time reigning conference champion Ludington, 41-35.

Ludington had beaten the Packers 15 straight years.

“I could see in the locker room after that game that they believed we could win the conference,” Zerfas said.

Fremont averaged 64 points per game over the next nine and defeated Ludington again 42-38 on Feb. 27 in front of a large home crowd.

That victory gave the Packers an undefeated conference season.

“When we went to Whitehall and beat them, that's when I pretty much bought in I think,” Bennett said. “I thought it was a good test for us, and at that moment I bought in and thought we had the potential to be good.”

Packers captains Katie Ackerman (22) and Jessica Bennett with coach Peter Zerfas.Fremont entered District play on a high, but lost second-leading scorer Mia Clemence to an ankle injury.

However, a win over Sparta put the Packers in the District Final against rival Grant.

After scoring only one point in the first quarter and falling behind 20-6, Fremont stormed back to earn a 49-40 win and its first District title since 2009.

Fremont advanced to a rematch with Spring Lake in Monday’s Division 3 Regional Semifinal, but saw the season end with a 58-27 defeat.

“They had beaten us by 20 or more twice and they were the better team, but my center was on crutches, our leading scorer had a broken thumb on her shooting hand and we had two girls with high temperatures before the game,” Zerfas said. “The girls battled and played their best, but it was the perfect storm with injuries and illnesses. And Spring Lake is really good and deserved to win.”

Still, Fremont ended with a 20-5 overall mark, the most wins in a season since 1978 when that team advanced to the Quarterfinals.

“I believe the success we had came from great senior leadership and them accepting me as a coach and what I wanted to teach them,” Zerfas said. “But most importantly, they worked hard and worked together. The season was a ton of fun, and I’m going to miss the pasta dinners, the team bonding and how close this team was.”

It was a memorable season for all.

“I expected us to be better than previous years, but I did not expect us to be as good and go as far as what we did,” Ackerman said. “It was a really cool experience, and he made basketball fun. It’s one of the best years I’ve ever had playing.”

Bennett credited her coach for bringing a different mindset to the program.

“It was about Coach coming in and completely changing the system and the culture from what we had done in the past,” she said. “We were going to push the ball up the floor, and we were going to play fast and shoot a lot. And the leadership on our team was good. 

“It was very exciting to win the conference, and it’s easier to play really hard for a coach that believes in you and has faith in you.”

The community also embraced the team as wins began piling up. Sparse crowds to begin the season ballooned midway through, and an estimated 1,000 people from Fremont showed up for the District Final.

“Everywhere you went in town, people who loved basketball were talking about our team and how hard they worked and how fun they were to watch,” Zerfas said. “Our local media was talking about us, too, and for a little while we were the talk of the town.”

The future could remain bright for the Packers as they will return seven players next season. In addition, their junior varsity went 20-1.

Fremont’s middle school teams also are having success as they have combined for only one loss.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) Fremont’s girls basketball team finished 20-5 this season and won its first outright league title since 1978. (Middle) Packers captains Katie Ackerman (22) and Jessica Bennett with coach Peter Zerfas. (Photos courtesy of the Fremont girls basketball program.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)