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.)

High School 'Hoop Squad' Close to Heart as Hughes Continues Coaching Climb

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

July 11, 2024

Jareica Hughes had a Hall of Fame collegiate basketball career playing at University of Texas-El Paso and has played professionally overseas, but her most prized possession is something she earned playing high school basketball in Michigan. 

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosA standout at now-closed Southfield-Lathrup High School during the early-to-mid 2000s, Hughes proudly displays a signature symbol of Lathrup’s Class A championship team in 2005. 

“I have my state championship ring on me right now,” said Hughes, now an assistant head coach for the women’s basketball program at UTEP. “I wear this ring every single day. Not so much for the basketball aspect. Inside of the ring it says ‘Hoop Squad.’ It’s more the connection I’ve had with those particular young ladies. Friends that I’ve known since I was kid. Every once in a while when we talk, we go back in time.”

Believe it or not, Hughes and her high school teammates next year will have to go back 20 years to commemorate a run to the title that started when they were freshmen. 

It was a gradual build-up to what was the first girls basketball state championship won by a public school in Oakland County. Lathrup, which has since merged with the former Southfield High School to form Southfield Arts & Technology, remained the only public school in Oakland County to win a state girls basketball title until West Bloomfield did so in 2022 and again this past March. 

Lathrup lost in the District round to Bloomfield Hills Marian during Hughes’ freshman year, and then after defeating Marian in a District Final a year later, lost to West Bloomfield in a Regional Final.

When Hughes was a junior, the team got to the state’s final four, but a bad third quarter resulted in a heartbreaking one-point Semifinal loss to eventual champion Lansing Waverly. 

A year later, when Hughes and other core players such as Brittane Russell, Timika Williams, Dhanmite’ Slappey and Briana Whitehead were seniors, they finished the job and won the Class A crown with a 48-36 win over Detroit Martin Luther King in the Final.

However, the signature moment of that title run actually came during the Semifinal round and was produced by Hughes, a playmaking wizard at point guard who made the team go. 

Trailing by three points during the waning seconds of regulation against Grandville and Miss Basketball winner Allyssa DeHaan – a dominant 6-foot-8 center – Hughes drained a tying 3-pointer from the wing that was well beyond the 3-point line. 

Lathrup went on to defeat Grandville in overtime and prevail against King.

Hughes said the year prior, she passed up on taking a potential winning or tying shot in the Semifinal loss against Waverly, and was reminded of that constantly by coaches and teammates. “I just remember in the huddle before that shot, that just kept ringing in my mind,” she said. “That was special. I cried for weeks not being able to get a shot off (the year before) and leaving the tournament like that.”

Growing up in Detroit, Hughes got into basketball mainly because she had five older brothers and an older sister who played the game. In particular, Hughes highlights older brother Gabriel for getting her into the game and taking her from playground to playground.

“I’m from Detroit,” she said. “We played ball all day long. Sunup to sundown. When the light comes on, you had to run your butt into the house.”

Hughes, second from left, begins the championship celebration with her Lathrup teammates at Breslin Center.Hughes played for the Police Athletic League and also at the famed St. Cecilia gym in the summer, developing her game primarily against boys.

“My first team was on a boys team,” she said. “I was a captain on a boys team.” 

The family moved into Lathrup’s district before she began high school. 

Once she helped lead Lathrup to the 2005 championship, she went on to a fine career at UTEP, where she was the Conference USA Player of the Year twice and helped lead the Miners to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Hughes still holds school records for career assists (599), steals (277) and minutes played (3,777). On Monday, she was named to Conference USA’s 2024 Hall of Fame class. 

After a brief professional career overseas was derailed by a shoulder injury, Hughes said getting into coaching was a natural fit. 

“I had to make the hard decision, and I knew as a kid I wanted to be around basketball,” she said. “Once I made that decision (to quit), I knew I was going to coach.”

Hughes started coaching in the Detroit area, first serving as an assistant at Southfield A&T from 2016-20 and then at Birmingham Groves for a season. She then served as interim head coach at Colby Community College in Kansas before being named an assistant at UTEP in May 2023, a month after her former coach Keitha Adams returned to lead the program after six seasons at Wichita State.  

While fully immersed in her job with UTEP, Hughes’ high school memories in Michigan certainly aren’t going away anytime soon – especially with the 20th anniversary of Lathrup’s championship coming up. 

“We are still close friends because we all essentially grew up together,” she said. “They are still my friends to this day.”

2024 Made In Michigan

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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Southfield-Lathrup’s Jareica Hughes drives to the basket against Detroit Martin Luther King during the 2005 Class A Final; at right, Hughes coaches this past season at UTEP. (Middle) Hughes, second from left, begins the championship celebration with her Lathrup teammates at Breslin Center. (UTEP photo courtesy of the UTEP sports information department.)