Manistee Catholic Central's Excellence Bolstered by Experience

By Tom Spencer
Special for

January 6, 2023

Playing three guards happens probably most at the high school level, but still may be considered an uncommon lineup. 

And it’s unlikely more than one Michigan high school girls basketball team can boast of having all three guards on the court playing at least their fifth seasons at the varsity level.

Manistee Catholic Central can. And these guards, playing more like a family as some say, are ready to undo the feeling of last year’s season-ending loss to Brethren in the District Semifinal.

Due to the school’s tiny enrollment, MCC is allowed under MHSAA rules to have seventh and eighth graders on the roster as they’ve had for some time. So when the Sabres gather around the seniors including Leah Stickney, Kaylyn Johnson, Emily Miller, Abbey Logan and Ashley VanAelst during their pregame warm-up, they fire up around a lot of experience.

MCC went 14-5 last year and shared the West Michigan D League championship. They’re off to a 7-2 start as they host Walkerville tonight. Both losses this season were by just one point.

VanAelst is one of the guards and captains in the starting lineup. She joined the Sabres late in her in eighth grade season.

“I’ve grown up with this team,” VanAelst said. “They have been (there) for me throughout everything.  

“I see them as the best family I could ever have,” she continued. “I love to call them my family.” 

Being so much a part of each other’s lives, including school days, has bode well for the Sabres, VanAelst said.

“We have such a good bonding aspect,” she said. “When we’re on the court, we forget about all of our troubles and we come together.  

“I like when we’re on the court, we’re all one.”

Stickney, a 5-foot-5 senior guard, is the team’s leading rebounder. She regularly starts in the three-guard formation with VanAelst and junior Grace Kidd. Johnson, the team’s leading scorer at 12.2 points per game, starts in the post.

MCC coach Todd Erickson talks things over with Leah Stickney (3). Stickney, Johnson, Kidd, and junior Elizabeth Logan all played on the varsity team prior to entering the high school. The experienced lineup has coach Todd Erickson looking for an extended postseason run.

“They got the court time over the year to play at this level,” Erickson said. “We’ve been waiting for this team to come into their own.  

“We’re not where we think we can be yet.”

The Sabres are moving south to Walkerville to start the postseason this year. They will vie for the District title there with Walkerville, Baldwin, Mason County Eastern, McBain Northern Michigan Christian and Pentwater. 

MCC picked up a 44-18 win this week over Pentwater, a potential District opponent.

Summer camps in Petoskey and Gaylord, along with a summer YMCA league in Traverse City, helped the Sabres prepare for this season. VanAelst was one of the players leading the charge.

“I wanted to do something great,” VanAelst said. “I just really wanted to make myself better and be a leader out on the court and help my teammates along the way.  

“It was more a team building aspect and how we can work together and become a better team,” she continued. “Instead of working on ourselves individually, we worked together.”

Over the years, Erickson’s teams have won a dozen District championships and three Regionals. His Sabers advanced to the Semifinals in 1999 before falling to eventual Class D champion Portland St. Patrick. The Sabres had only eight players on that roster.

Erickson took over the Sabers girls program during the middle of the 1992 season when the head coach at the time suddenly stepped down. Erickson coached both varsity and JV for the remainder of the year.

He left Manistee Catholic briefly to coach Manistee High for two seasons, posting a combined 45-3 record there with two District titles and a Regional championship. He later returned to Catholic Central after taking a year off.

Last winter, his players and the school honored Erickson for reaching the 400-win milestone.

With this postseason in mind, Erickson now has his team working on rebounding and free throw shooting.

“Our rebounding has to change,” Erickson. “When you’ve got three guards leading your rebounding, we have a problem.

“There is no reason for a 5-foot-5 guard leading your rebounding.”

Erickson noted his players responded to the rebounding focus in their latest win. And, he loves the growth in his guards.

Ashley VanAelst (11) considers her options on offense against Central Lake.“All three of those guards — Leah, Ashley and Grace — the have learned to play really well together,” he said. “Every time they play, they are getting stronger and stronger to each other. 

“They look out for each other on the floor,” he went on. “They always know where the other two are.”

The Sabres also improved their free throw shooting in the win over Pentwater, especially Johnson.

“Kaylin took it to heart,” Erickson said. “She turned around to me at the end and she goes, ‘Coach, I was 4 for 4 at the free throw line.’  

“I said, ‘That’s where you should be, 3-for-4 or 4-for-4.’”

Erickson’s coaching has spanned five decades, and he’s not the only coach in his family. His wife Jan has done some coaching. His daughters, Kelly and Katie, currently serve as assistant coaches for St. Joseph Our Lady of the Lake Catholic and Traverse City St. Francis, respectively.

The Sabres’ success has not gone unnoticed. Among those taking note is Mike Kanitz, who serves now as assistant coach at St. Francis with Katie Erickson.  

Kanitz coached against Manistee Catholic when he was the head coach at Traverse City Christian. The Gladiators also saw the Sabres at camp and the YMCA league this summer.

“Coach (Todd) Erickson takes the talent that he has each year and makes them more talented,” Kanitz said. “He does a great job of developing teams.

“His teams are always competitive.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Manistee Catholic Central’s Kaylyn Johnson lines up for a free throw. (Middle) MCC coach Todd Erickson talks things over with Leah Stickney (3). (Below) Ashley VanAelst (11) considers her options on offense against Central Lake. (Photos by Mitch Vosburg/Manistee News Advocate.)

Hemlock, Rockford Follow 3-Point Success to 1st Titles, Record Book Fame

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

September 1, 2023

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:

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.