By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
In the first practice without Bree Salenbien, the Lenawee Christian girls basketball team didn’t dwell on the fact the best player in the Division 4 tournament the last couple of seasons won’t be on the court for this season’s playoff run.
“Practice was amazing,” third-year Lenawee Christian head coach Jamie Salenbien said. “The girls talked about ways to step up, and they assured each other of their foundation.”
Lenawee Christian has won back-to-back Finals championships, in Class D in 2018 and Division 4 in 2019. During each of those state championship runs, 6-foot-4 Bree Salenbien showcased the incredible talent that has earned her more than 25 scholarship offers from Division I schools across the country – including Michigan and Michigan State.
In a stunning turn of events, however, Salenbien tore her ACL with about 15 seconds remaining in overtime of Lenawee Christian’s final regular-season game earlier this week. That drastically changed the entire MHSAA tournament picture as the 17-3 Cougars – who have played one of the toughest schedules in the state regardless of division – no longer are the overwhelming favorites.
Don’t tell them that, however.
“It definitely is going to be a long hard road,” said Cougars senior Dani Salenbien, Bree’s older sister. “It’s no secret Bree is a huge part of our team, but I have no doubt that our team will adjust and come out strong when we play next.”
The Cougars have gone 15-0 the last two seasons in postseason play, winning the first two girls basketball championships in school history. The Salenbiens have been at the forefront of those title runs. Jamie Salenbien is a Hudson graduate who coached three years at Onsted before stepping down to concentrate on coaching his daughters through their youth teams.
He became head varsity coach at Lenawee Christian when Dani was entering her sophomore year and Bree was about to make her varsity debut. The result was a 26-1 season and Class D Final win over Chassell. Bree was named the Class D Player of the Year and her dad was named Coach of the Year by The Associated Press.
Last season, Dani Salenbien took more of a lead role, especially during the tournament, helping turn the Cougars’ fortunes with an outstanding performance in the championship game win over St. Ignace. Both Salenbiens were all-state choices, and this year it looked like the Cougars were destined to become one of the few three-peat champions in MHSAA history. They have been ranked No. 1 all season. The only team with a higher Michigan Power Rating than LCS is Division 2 Detroit Edison, a team the Cougars lost to as part of a rugged schedule that saw LCS face three teams that have been ranked No. 1 in three separate classes this season.
The game against Edison was played in front of a standing-room only crowd at LCS. Dani Salenbien poured in eight 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points, which Edison eventually pulled away and won.
“It definitely was nerve-wracking,” Dani said. “The environment was kind of insane. I had so much fun. It was an opportunity for us to show our love of Christ and play to the best of our ability. Anytime you play a team like that, you have the chance to improve.”
Among the other teams on the LCS schedule this year have been Hartland, who was No. 1 in Division 1 at one point of the season; several state-ranked Division 4 schools such as Fowler and Allen Park Inter-City Baptist; Toledo Christian, ranked No. 2 in Ohio’s Division 4; and Cascades Conference powerhouses Michigan Center and Grass Lake, which was ranked No. 1 in Division 3 for much of the season.
“Playing 20 different teams pushes the girls to prepare and perform each game,” Coach Salenbien said. “By playing some of the best teams in the state, it hopefully prepares the girls for the toughest situations they might face.
“Facing the best requires you to dig deep and play your best.”
The game against Grass Lake on Tuesday was one of those games, two powerhouses battling on every possession. In the waning seconds of the first overtime, the Cougars grabbed a rebound and found Bree on an outlet pass. She took a dribble, then appeared to have tried to dribble the ball behind her back when she went to the floor. By Thursday, the Salenbien family was overwhelmed with text messages, phone calls and e-mails from friends, family and former Cougars players and coaches offering prayers and support for Bree.
On Thursday afternoon the Cougars were back on the practice floor, getting ready for Monday’s Division 4 District game against Ann Arbor Rudolf Steiner.
Coach Salenbien said the girls got in practice, strength training and spent some time reading through some of the messages the team has received over the last couple of days. It’s not business as usual, of course, but don’t expect a letdown once the postseason starts Monday.
“This group is so tough,” Coach Salenbien said. “I just love how fearless they approach challenges.
“One of our themes is ‘Chase the Lion’ which stresses the importance of dreaming big and taking positive risks without fear. The group lives this out.”
Dani, Libby Miller and Caitlin Anderson are four-year starters. Dani – who has signed to play at Hillsdale College next year – has scored more than 1,200 career points, while Miller has made 178 career 3-pointers and Caitlin is nearing 100 career games played. Cara Anderson and Lizzy Scharer both have big game experience as well, having played in an MHSAA Final.
The Cougars plan to approach this Division 4 tournament just as they would with Bree.
“I don’t know if anyone’s roles will change or not,” Dani said. “I’m excited. We’re going to have to play our best, and everyone is going to have to step up. The postseason makes us all that much more serious. We already are serious, but it just intensifies in the postseason.”
The Cougars have played against some of Michigan and Ohio’s best teams this year and are ready for that road to pay off. Lenawee Christian also has something few other teams have – virtually unmatched big game experience.
Like Dani Salenbien said, “It helps when you have been there.”
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) Adrian Lenawee Christian coach Jamie Salenbien talks things over with his team during a game break this season. (Middle) Dani Salenbien pulls up for a jumper. (Photos courtesy of the Lenawee Christian athletic department.)
Hemlock and Rockford's drives to their first Girls Basketball Finals championships in March were paced in part by some of the strongest 3-point shooting in MHSAA history.
The Division 1 title-winning Rams connected on 243 3-pointers – third-most all-time – over 29 games in tying the single-season wins record while finishing 28-1. Grace Lyons, a senior this fall, made the single-season individual list with 70 3-pointers.
The Huskies won in Division 3 having connected on 229 3-pointers over 29 games, seventh-most in MHSAA history, on 678 attempts, which ranks 12th on that list. Chloe Watson made the single-season list with 75 3-pointers, and Regan Finkbeiner did as well connecting on 67.
Watson also made the career 3-pointers list with 224 and Finkbeiner with 194, and 2017 Hemlock graduate Samantha Krauss was added for 65 3-pointers as a junior in 2015-16 and 188 for her career. Additionally, past Hemlock standout Karli Herrington was added for her 317 rebounds in 2012-13, and Peyton Apsey was added for 144 steals in 2010-11.
Watson is continuing her career at Mid-Michigan College, and Finkbeiner is playing softball at Madonna. Herrington went on to play at Central Michigan and Northwood, Krauss played at Ferris State and Apsey played at Oakland.
Read on for more recent record book additions for girls basketball:
Hudsonville’s Maddie Petroelje joined the list of top 3-point shooters in MHSAA history as a junior in 2021-22, when she connected on 70 (in just 147 attempts) to make the single-season list. She graduated this spring 16th on the career list as well with 226 3-pointers in 512 attempts over 92 games and four seasons. She is continuing at Loyola (Ill.).
Byron Center’s Avery Zeinstra also finished her career among those top 3-point shooters. She also made the single-season list with 70 in 147 attempts as a freshman in 2018-19, and she capped her career in 2021-22 with 206 3-pointers (tied for 20th-most) in 502 attempts over four seasons and 80 career games. She is continuing at Grand Valley State.
Hannah Thompson was best known for her soccer scoring at Schoolcraft. But she’s made a second MHSAA record book for her 15 steals in a Jan. 28, 2022, basketball win over Galesburg-Augusta. She’s continuing her soccer career at Eastern Michigan.
Baraga’s run to the Division 4 Semifinals in 2022 received big boosts from Corina Jahfetson’s 3-point shooting and Reide Osterman’s defense. Jahfetson was added to the record book with 66 3-pointers over 25 games, including nine in a game against Carney Nadeau – when Baraga as a team made the record book with 14 3-pointers total. Osterman made the record book with 153 steals. Jahfetson graduated this spring, and Osterman is playing at Northern Michigan.
Grand Rapids West Michigan Aviation Academy’s Audrey Mileski had one of the busiest games at the free throw line in MHSAA history Dec. 14, 2021. She made 23 free throws – third-most in a single game – against Wyoming Kelloggsville. Mileski graduated this spring.
Sophia Bussell had set Monroe’s single-game 3-pointers record of eight as a freshman two seasons ago, and she bettered it last Dec. 13 by tying for the 10th-most in MHSAA history. She made 10-pointers including the game-winner of a 58-56 victory over Ypsilanti Lincoln. A little less than 10 months earlier, Adrian Lenawee Christian then-senior Kylie Summer also made 10, on 17 attempts, during a 57-34 win over Lansing Christian on Feb. 24, 2022.
Lydia Meredith enjoyed a memorable senior season for Portland St. Patrick in 2021-22, finishing her four-year varsity career with 453 steals over just 80 games. She also was added for drilling 17 free throws in 22 attempts against Fowler. She plays now at Saginaw Valley State.
Gabby Piepho got off to a fast start at Howell as a freshman last season, and at a record-setting pace at the free-throw line. She made 93 of 107 attempts over 25 games, for an .869 percentage that made the single-season list. That included a string of 47 straight free throws that ranks as the second-longest in MHSAA history. As a team, Howell tied for sixth all-time with 301 free throws over 25 games, on 439 attempts.
Kent City’s Lexie Bowers reached the single-season 3-pointers list for the second time last season, connecting on 72 of 233 tries over 26 games (after making 77 as a junior), and finished her four-season varsity career 16th on that 3-pointers list with 225 in 693 attempts over 99 games. She’s continuing her career at Northwood. Kent City as a team also reached the single-season 3-pointers made and attempted lists again, ranking fourth with 753 attempts and tying for eighth all-time by connecting on 202.
Posen then-junior Faith Cousins earned a par of record book entries during 2021-22 for assists. Her 16 in a District Final win on March 4, 2022, remain tied for fifth-most in one game, and she finished with 165 over 22 games for the season. She’s set to begin her softball career at Alma College.
Niles Brandywine went over 20 wins again this past season, finishing 21-3, and again the 3-pointer was a key tool in that pursuit. Brandywine made the record book with back-to-back games of 13 3-pointers to close the regular season, and finished with 175 3-pointers in 592 attempts over 23 games (with one won by forfeit).
Greenville’s Megan Leslie averaged more than two 3-pointers a game during her four-season varsity career, making the record list with 153 total over 76 games through graduation this spring. She’s continuing her career at Alma College.
Successful 3-point shooting played a major role in Saline finishing 21-4 with league and District titles last winter. The Hornets attempted 704 3-pointers – ninth-most all-time for one season – and connected on 191, which is 12th on that list. They made a season-high 14 against Ypsilanti Lincoln on Nov. 29 to make the single-game list.
Marcellus senior Brooklyn VanTilburg enjoyed a big finish to her high school career last winter, making the record book with 16 blocked shots in a game against Centreville and 135 blocks total for the season. She’ll continue at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Kennedy Gustafson made headlines last winter as a sophomore and earned a pair of record listings for her rebounding. She grabbed 26 in a March 3 District Final win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, and she finished with 376 rebounds over 25 games for the season.
PHOTO Hemlock's Regan Finkbeiner, left, follows through on a free throw attempt during last season's Division 3 Final, and Rockford's Grace Lyons launches the game-winning 3-pointer in Division 1.