The Cardinal Mooney girls basketball season ended last week in the Regional Final with a loss to Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes.
On the surface, for a program with Mooney’s rich history in the past decade-plus, it was disappointing – especially against a longtime rival that went on Tuesday to clinch a Semifinal berth.
But considering the Cardinals didn’t make it to Game 1 of the regular season two years ago, any disappointment was overshadowed by the massive steps forward the program has taken.
“This is about perspective,” Mooney coach Mike Lombard said. “Two years ago, we didn’t even have a varsity program. This year, we went to Allen Park Inter-City Baptist for a Regional Semifinal, were down 12 late and went on an 18-1 run to end the game. Everyone was upset (after the Regional Final loss), but there’s got to be perspective to say that the girls have come a long way.”
Mooney, which played in the Class D Final in 2009 and advanced to the Semifinals in 2008 and 2014, didn’t field a varsity team for the 2015-16 season because of a lack of players. With just seven, the vast majority underclassmen, the Cardinals opted to simply play a JV schedule.
“It was kind of crazy going from being coached by coach (Susan) Everhart, which was a really intense experience, to going backward,” said Lilly Wolf, who played varsity as a sophomore in 2014-15. “I think I kind of knew that eventually in my senior year there would be a varsity team, and it would be better for the program and myself to stick with it.”
It was a tough decision for a proud program, but it appears to have worked out. The Cardinals won the Detroit Catholic League Intersectional title in their first year back, and advanced to the District championship game before losing to Sterling Heights Parkway Christian.
Lombard gave a lot of the credit for that quick rebound to Wolf, who is now a freshman at Saginaw Valley State University.
“We were incredibly lucky that Lilly Wolf stayed with the program,” he said. “We played 22 games last year, and of those 22 games, Lilly would have been the best player on the floor in 17 of them. She bailed us out. We were able to have a little success because of Lilly Wolf, and to a lesser extent Lauren Luzynski and Molly Lombard. Those three girls really saved our bacon. They made basketball look attractive again.”
Mooney’s remaining players took advantage by getting to work in the offseason – not only on the court, but off it, recruiting their classmates to come out for the team.
“We tried to recruit those girls that we knew had played basketball in the past or that were just athletic,” Luzynski, a junior, said. “We just wanted to get people to come out for the team. We wanted to make Mooney great again.”
Building up numbers at a small Class D school was a major step for the program, and this season Mooney finished with 11 on the varsity team and eight on the JV, more than double the number of players in the program two years ago.
“We really had to say to ourselves that we have to start somewhere,” Molly Lombard, a senior, said. “With all of us working hard, we had to say that we have to start somewhere and build something up. I think people want to be part of something like that, and leave a mark on their school.”
Mooney won another Catholic League Intersectional title this season, won a District title and finished 18-6. It was the type of season nobody saw coming two years ago.
“Yeah, it was definitely unexpected,” Luzynski said. “When I came in my freshman year, we barely even had a JV team. We barely had enough girls to have a basketball team. Making such a strong comeback in these last two years was very unexpected.”
There is certainly room still to grow, and the loss to Lakes showed that. It was also a call back to the past, when Mooney and Lakes would battle seemingly every postseason.
“There was some symbolism there, but also I think a dash of realism for the girls who are going to stay in the program,” Mike Lombard said. “That Lakes team puts in a lot of work as Lakes teams always do. Mooney teams have to do the same thing. So I think it was a look to the past, but also a look to the future to see where they want to be and where to get back to.”
Putting in the work should be nothing new for this group of Cardinals, and those who enter the program will have a good example to look to thanks to the teams from the past few years.
“I watched the girls play at Mooney when I was in eighth grade -- I was at their camp in seventh and eighth grade,” Molly Lombard said. “I knew how good they were, and I was hoping to bring that back to Mooney. I feel like we did bring that back to Mooney. We have a JV team now; we have a varsity. We have a new legacy going on at Mooney, and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marine City Cardinal Mooney players stand with their Class D District trophy won two weeks ago. (Middle) Junior Casey Rice puts up a shot this season. (Photos courtesy of the Cardinal Mooney girls basketball program).
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.)