Heroes Rise to Earn P-W's Legendary Win

March 23, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GRAND RAPIDS – The seconds couldn’t tick off the clock fast enough Saturday for a Pewamo-Westphalia girls basketball team on the verge of its first championship for the third season in a row.

Side by side on the bench, each with four fouls, sat juniors Ellie Droste and Hannah Spitzley – who together scored more than half of the Pirates’ points this winter.

On the floor, senior Rachel Huhn faced the start of the fourth quarter charged with holding things together as the only other player with significant experience from P-W’s last two tournament runs.     

“Seeing those two in foul trouble, I knew especially being a senior leader, I knew my focus was just to keep everyone positive, keep everyone together,” Huhn said. “Just keep us in one unit, and stay calm.”

She also knew she was now the team’s top offensive option – but surely she didn’t anticipate knocking down the most important shot in her program’s history.

Huhn’s fourth-quarter 3-pointer with 5:31 to play was P-W’s only field only over the final 11 minutes and 13 seconds Saturday, and only points during a 9 minute, 28-second stretch that saw the Pirates lead over Flint Hamady go from 11 to one with 1:45 to play. It also ended the reason the Pirates never lost the lead as they clinched the Division 3 championship with a 40-33 victory at Van Noord Arena.

Huhn also connected on all four of her free-throw attempts over the final 32 seconds as P-W completed a run that began with a trip to the Class C Final two years ago, followed by an appearance in the Semifinals last season.

“It just feels amazing to go out this way, because everyone on this team – all 16 girls – have worked so hard for this,” Huhn said, “In the offseason we’ve done so much improving our own skills, and I just feel like we work so well together. To come close sophomore and junior year and put the cherry on top my senior year, it’s just a great feeling.”

This P-W team was the 11th to reach the season’s final week, and followed Class C runners-up also in 1983 and 1984. The Pirates finished 27-1, their only defeat to Division 2 power Detroit Edison, which had beaten P-W in the last two playoff trips.

The Pirates led all but 56 seconds Saturday. But after pushing the lead to double digits during both the second and third quarters, it took just about everything the Pirates could offer to withstand a Hamady team with a significant size advantage and a defensive press that played a big part in P-W’s 22 turnovers – with half coming during the Hawks’ 13-3 second-half run to draw within one.

“We knew they had some speed, but we didn’t quite know how quick they were,” Hamady coach Keith Smith said. “Now that I look back at it, I probably should have brought the pressure a little earlier. But we did respect (Droste’s) play … but I think we got her a little rattled. And we were also trying to get her out of there when she got four fouls.”

As significant as navigating the pressure, the Pirates outrebounded Hamady 32-19 despite having only one player 6-foot and one more taller than 5-8. They did so with that 6-footer, Spitzley, playing 19 seconds over the last 8:49 before fouling out and six players grabbing between 4-7 rebounds apiece.

P-W had practiced playing with Spitzley or Droste fouled out – but Pirates coach Steve Eklund never anticipated that scenario becoming real-life in this game.

His players couldn’t have responded better.

Huhn’s 3-pointer was followed by Spitzley’s re-entry and then departure, and then Droste came back into the game at 3:43 to play. The teams took turns missing shots before junior guard Xeryia Tartt’s free throw pulled Hamady to within 32-31 with 1:45 to play.

The Hawks (21-6) grabbed the rebound off Tartt’s miss on the second free-throw attempt, but Droste stole the ball and was fouled trying to finish a break. She made a free throw to push the lead to two, and the Pirates followed with another stop when junior guard Emily Nurenberg ended up with the ball after Hamady lost its dribble attempting to tie the score. Droste ended up with possession, was fouled, and this time made both free throws to make the lead 35-31 with 42.5 seconds to play. The Pirates then limited the Hawks to one missed shot on three straight possessions, with Huhn twice grabbing rebounds during that shutdown stretch. They also made 8 of 10 free throws over the final 1:14.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we out-pointed them. We took care of the basketball at times, we made our free throws, and defensively we got stops,” Eklund said. “With 40 seconds left we were happy. We had the lead, we were at the free throw line, and I said, ‘Girls, I think we need three or four more stops.’ And I think we got three stops in the last 40 seconds.

“We drill every day, get a stop and score. Today was get a stop and free throws.”

Droste finished with 18 points, including 12 on free throws. Huhn had 10 points and six rebounds, and Spitzley had eight points. Junior guard Kiera Thelen scored two points but led the rebounding effort with seven.

“I just knew my teammates, the entire time, they had my back,” Droste said. “Me and Hannah both got into foul trouble, which really, it’s hard because you’re so used to being out there in tight situations. But we have such confidence in our teammates – we trust them so much that we know no matter what we can come out with the win.”

Tartt had 15 points and five of her team’s 14 steals to lead Hamady, which was playing in its first Final since finishing Class C runner-up in 2015.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia players, including senior Rachel Huhn (far right), celebrate the team’s first MHSAA Finals title Saturday at Van Noord Arena. (Middle) The Pirates’ Ellie Droste tries to keep possession while a pair of Hamady players apply the pressure.

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

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)