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.)

High School 'Hoop Squad' Close to Heart as Hughes Continues Coaching Climb

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

July 11, 2024

Jareica Hughes had a Hall of Fame collegiate basketball career playing at University of Texas-El Paso and has played professionally overseas, but her most prized possession is something she earned playing high school basketball in Michigan. 

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosA standout at now-closed Southfield-Lathrup High School during the early-to-mid 2000s, Hughes proudly displays a signature symbol of Lathrup’s Class A championship team in 2005. 

“I have my state championship ring on me right now,” said Hughes, now an assistant head coach for the women’s basketball program at UTEP. “I wear this ring every single day. Not so much for the basketball aspect. Inside of the ring it says ‘Hoop Squad.’ It’s more the connection I’ve had with those particular young ladies. Friends that I’ve known since I was kid. Every once in a while when we talk, we go back in time.”

Believe it or not, Hughes and her high school teammates next year will have to go back 20 years to commemorate a run to the title that started when they were freshmen. 

It was a gradual build-up to what was the first girls basketball state championship won by a public school in Oakland County. Lathrup, which has since merged with the former Southfield High School to form Southfield Arts & Technology, remained the only public school in Oakland County to win a state girls basketball title until West Bloomfield did so in 2022 and again this past March. 

Lathrup lost in the District round to Bloomfield Hills Marian during Hughes’ freshman year, and then after defeating Marian in a District Final a year later, lost to West Bloomfield in a Regional Final.

When Hughes was a junior, the team got to the state’s final four, but a bad third quarter resulted in a heartbreaking one-point Semifinal loss to eventual champion Lansing Waverly. 

A year later, when Hughes and other core players such as Brittane Russell, Timika Williams, Dhanmite’ Slappey and Briana Whitehead were seniors, they finished the job and won the Class A crown with a 48-36 win over Detroit Martin Luther King in the Final.

However, the signature moment of that title run actually came during the Semifinal round and was produced by Hughes, a playmaking wizard at point guard who made the team go. 

Trailing by three points during the waning seconds of regulation against Grandville and Miss Basketball winner Allyssa DeHaan – a dominant 6-foot-8 center – Hughes drained a tying 3-pointer from the wing that was well beyond the 3-point line. 

Lathrup went on to defeat Grandville in overtime and prevail against King.

Hughes said the year prior, she passed up on taking a potential winning or tying shot in the Semifinal loss against Waverly, and was reminded of that constantly by coaches and teammates. “I just remember in the huddle before that shot, that just kept ringing in my mind,” she said. “That was special. I cried for weeks not being able to get a shot off (the year before) and leaving the tournament like that.”

Growing up in Detroit, Hughes got into basketball mainly because she had five older brothers and an older sister who played the game. In particular, Hughes highlights older brother Gabriel for getting her into the game and taking her from playground to playground.

“I’m from Detroit,” she said. “We played ball all day long. Sunup to sundown. When the light comes on, you had to run your butt into the house.”

Hughes, second from left, begins the championship celebration with her Lathrup teammates at Breslin Center.Hughes played for the Police Athletic League and also at the famed St. Cecilia gym in the summer, developing her game primarily against boys.

“My first team was on a boys team,” she said. “I was a captain on a boys team.” 

The family moved into Lathrup’s district before she began high school. 

Once she helped lead Lathrup to the 2005 championship, she went on to a fine career at UTEP, where she was the Conference USA Player of the Year twice and helped lead the Miners to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Hughes still holds school records for career assists (599), steals (277) and minutes played (3,777). On Monday, she was named to Conference USA’s 2024 Hall of Fame class. 

After a brief professional career overseas was derailed by a shoulder injury, Hughes said getting into coaching was a natural fit. 

“I had to make the hard decision, and I knew as a kid I wanted to be around basketball,” she said. “Once I made that decision (to quit), I knew I was going to coach.”

Hughes started coaching in the Detroit area, first serving as an assistant at Southfield A&T from 2016-20 and then at Birmingham Groves for a season. She then served as interim head coach at Colby Community College in Kansas before being named an assistant at UTEP in May 2023, a month after her former coach Keitha Adams returned to lead the program after six seasons at Wichita State.  

While fully immersed in her job with UTEP, Hughes’ high school memories in Michigan certainly aren’t going away anytime soon – especially with the 20th anniversary of Lathrup’s championship coming up. 

“We are still close friends because we all essentially grew up together,” she said. “They are still my friends to this day.”

2024 Made In Michigan

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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Southfield-Lathrup’s Jareica Hughes drives to the basket against Detroit Martin Luther King during the 2005 Class A Final; at right, Hughes coaches this past season at UTEP. (Middle) Hughes, second from left, begins the championship celebration with her Lathrup teammates at Breslin Center. (UTEP photo courtesy of the UTEP sports information department.)