By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – When Division 1 Ann Arbor Pioneer made a last-second 3-pointer to force Adrian Lenawee Christian to overtime a little more than a month ago – and the Cougars still prevailed – junior Elizabeth Miller knew her team was on the way to another special finish this winter.
Only a season removed from the team’s first MHSAA girls basketball championship, there no doubt were recognizable signs.
“We really just played with heart in overtime and ended up winning, and that was a really big win for us,” Miller said. “That kinda motivated us to work really hard the rest of the season. I think that’s what pushed us to get here today.”
After winning Class D led by an all-state freshman and without a senior in the starting lineup, it may have seemed inevitable Lenawee Christian would return to Calvin College and the final day of this season.
The Cougars took the last step Thursday with a 57-36 Division 4 Semifinal win over Fowler, setting up Saturday’s 10 a.m. championship matchup with undefeated St. Ignace.
By looks of their scores this playoff run, Lenawee Christian (25-2) barely has been challenged – Thursday’s win was the sixth straight by at least 15 points since opening the tournament with an eight-point victory over Pittsford.
But it’s hardly been that easy, as the Cougars again prepped for this postseason with a slate of games against larger opponents, losing only to Division 3 top-10 teams Grass Lake and Michigan Center.
“We know we have to work hard. We know what it takes … just do it as a team to get here,” Lenawee Christian junior Dani Salenbien said. “We know what it takes, and we know it’s not going to be easy.”
Thursday’s start certainly helped.
A year ago, the Cougars needed overtime to get past Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart by two points in their Semifinal. This time, Lenawee Christian built a double-digit lead in just under five minutes, and kept it in double digits for good beginning with a Miller 3-pointer nine seconds into the second quarter.
Salenbien, an all-state second-teamer a year ago, led with 25 points and eight rebounds. Her sophomore sister Bree – the Class D Player of the Year by The Associated Press last season – added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Both made at least half their shots from the floor, and Dani missed making the MHSAA record book by two free throws, connecting on 13 of 16 attempts from the line.
“I just think the target on our back has been extremely big, and the expectations have been really high,” Cougars coach (and Bree and Dani’s father) Jamie Salenbien said. “But a credit to these kids for being as young as they are, being able to handle that night in, day in and out. It’s been amazing to see. Their faith and the support from the community has been amazing, and they’ve been able to handle that.”
Expectations were not as high this season for Fowler – but the Eagles put an impressive finishing touch on an inspiring comeback story with their first Semifinal appearance since 1999.
They play in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference – home of Division 3 top-ranked Pewamo-Westphalia and six-time Class D champ Portland St. Patrick among a host of contenders – and two years ago were down to just a varsity team.
Fowler’s lone team went 5-16 in 2016-17, improved to 10-12 a year ago and put together a solid run over the last three weeks to finish this season 17-8.
“When Coach (Nathan Goerge) broke the news that we were only going to have one team my sophomore year, it was kinda hard for me to take,” Eagles senior forward Alyssa Vandegriff said. “But ultimately I think it was a good decision because it helped everyone who was on that one team come together, and we got to know each other. The people who were on that team with us are on our team today. If we weren’t on the same team together my sophomore year, I don’t think we’d be as close as we were or play as well together.”
Junior guard Kalani Koenigsknecht and freshman guard Mia Riley both scored a team-high 10 points for Fowler. Sophomore Sarah Veale had eight points, five rebounds and three assists.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Dani Salenbien directs the offense while Fowler’s Kalani Koenigsknecht defends. (Middle) The Eagles’ Josie Koenigsknecht defends against Salenbien.
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.)