EAST LANSING — Though it may very well look like a fun play on words, Grass Lake girls basketball coach Andrea Cabana has established quite a culture in the small town located just east of Jackson.
And it’s really beginning to pay off.
“It’s a grass-root, fundamental approach to changing the overall culture of the program,” she said. “We’re very in-tune to the younger kids in the Junior Warriors (program), throughout the middle school to JV and varsity. It’s a full program effort to keep everyone involved.”
On Friday, she and her Grass Lake team took another step in keeping everyone involved, capturing the school’s first girls basketball state championship. The Warriors overcame an early seven-point deficit and held off a late charge by Kent City for a 52-50 victory in the Division 3 Final at the Breslin Center.
Trailing by 10 points with just more than five minutes remaining in the game, Kent City went on a 10-2 run to nearly dissolve Grass Lake’s lead. Seniors Kenzie Bowers and Jenna Harrison hit back-to-back 3-pointers to get their team within four points at 46-40. After a Lauren Pongracz layup put it back to a six-point advantage for the Warriors, Harrison hit another 3 and Bowers hit one of two free throws to make it a 46-44 game, in favor of Grass Lake.
The two teams would trade baskets before Grass Lake junior Lexus Bargesser hit a pair of free throws with 35 seconds remaining to give her team a four-point lead. She added two more with 10 seconds left to essentially seal the victory for her team.
“I feel so proud of our team and how we pulled through and didn’t let the pressure get to us,” Bargesser said. “Truly, this is the best thing that any basketball player could imagine happening to them. To be able to go and say you won a state championship is truly such a blessing.”
Kent City entered the game unbeaten at 21-0 and jumped out to early leads of 16-9 and 21-17 thanks in part to its 3-point shooting. The Eagles shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 11 of their 28 attempts.
They also played well defensively early on, keeping Grass Lake’s two leading scorers, Bargesser and Abrie Cabana, in check.
“The girls executed the game plan absolutely perfectly,” Kent City head coach Scott Carlson said. ”We wanted to take away (Bargesser) and (Cabana) and we did that in the first quarter, the first half really. But they had some players hit some shots that we were going to make them shoot.”
Bargesser finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Cabana had 10 points to go along with her five rebounds. Junior Gabrielle Lutchka hit four 3-pointers and scored all 14 of her points in the first half.
Harrison led Kent City with 16 points, while Bowers chipped in 13.
“We had a great season,” Carlson said. “These girls played absolutely fantastic. They overcame a lot and worked their tails off all offseason on their own when we couldn’t get together. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
For Grass Lake, the championship is a culmination of five years of growth in the program, a program which Coach Cabana took over five years ago. The Warriors faced one of the toughest schedules in the state this season, which helped prepare them for Friday.
“We intentionally had a very tough schedule this year,” said the coach, who now has a 95-18 record in five years with the program. “Our philosophy is we want to see the best. We want to see how good we are. We want to be pushed to our limits. Teams like that will expose every weakness that you have. So we were able to work on the things that needed to be adjusted before big games like this.”
Grass Lake also captured its first Regional title this year, having fallen just short a couple of times under Cabana.
“Our program has definitely been on the rise the past couple of years,” Lutchka said. “We had a team make it to the Regional Final and (it) ended up not winning, so we’ve been trying to get past that point. Every year, we’ve gotten better and better and better.”
And this year, the Warriors reached the basketball summit.
“It’s huge for the girls within the program, something to build on and keep focusing on,” Cabana said. “It’s huge for the district. We’ve never won a basketball state championship at Grass Lake, and I think it’s huge for the community. We’ve had people who graduated a long time ago show up and give us their support. The amount of people who have reached out wishing us luck is astronomical. It will (someday) become a basketball town. We’re working on it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Grass Lake's Lexus Bargesser (1) tries to get a hand on a shot during Saturday's Division 3 Final at Breslin Center. (Middle) Kent City's Lexie Bowers (3) makes her move around the arc with Amber Boomer defending. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)