By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The Marshall girls basketball team brought one of the largest, loudest and most supportive groups of fans to the Breslin Center during last month's two weekends of MHSAA Basketball Finals.
But as the Redhawks faithful cheered their local team to its first Class B title, Marshall had another community rooting for the best as well.
Otsego shared the court with Marshall the week before for a Regional Final, won by the Redhawks 57-37. And Marshall’s team and coaches shared in a recent fight by the Otsego athletic family, which is supporting parent Val Davis, who is suffering from a fatal brain disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Davis has been known as one of her school's most passionate supporters through the careers of four children who have played on Bulldogs teams.
After the Regional Final, Otsego basketball player Liz Barwegen wrote the following to MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts:
“We have dedicated our season to one of our parents that has a brain disease. She is not doing very well. Doctors have told her she doesn’t have long. Our team began wearing bright neon green shoelaces because they were her favorite, and she likes seeing the bright color. The Marshall coach heard about this and so their team wore the bright green shoelaces also.
"That was not the only thing that the Marshall coach did that showed great sportsmanship. When there were about two minutes left in the game and Marshall had put their subs in, our coach also subbed in. However, Marshall had the ball and the time started ticking down. So the Marshall coach called a timeout just so we could get our subs in the game. I am not sure if their coach knew if the sub was Hailey (the girl with the sick mom), but Hailey was able to play the final minutes of the game for the last time in front of her mom.”
Hailey Davis was a senior this season. Barwegen, who so poignantly authored the letter, is only a sophomore.
This season’s Girls Basketball Tournament was storied to say the least, with all four champions first-time winners after two played in MHSAA championship games also for the first time. Marshall had arguably the most exhilarating final week, downing No. 4 Grand Rapids Catholic Central by 11 in a Quarterfinal, then No. 2 Bay City John Glenn on Nikki Tucker’s two free throws with 1.4 seconds to play in the Semifinal. The No. 7 Redhawks completed their first title run with a 51-42 victory over No. 3 Grand Rapids South Christian, led by coach Sal Konkle, who played on the Marshall team that finished runner-up in 1981 in the program's first trip to an MHSAA Final.
“I hated losing that game,” Barwegen wrote after her team's loss that kicked off the Redhawks' championship week, “but surely hope Marshall can go on and win the rest of the way.”
Click to read a piece from the Kalamazoo Gazette that tells more of Val Davis’ story and fight.
PHOTO: Marshall and Otsego players line up together, showing off neon green shoelaces both teams wore in honor of Otsego mother and fan Val Davis during their Class B Regional Final. (Photo by Gary Shook.)
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.)