BLOOMFIELD HILLS – When word leaked out last April that sisters Bailey and Samantha Thomas would be moving to Nevada and not returning to Bloomfield Hills Marian for the 2015-16 school year, reporters and basketball fans alike did a quick math equation.
Marian would graduate three seniors who started plus its top reserve and, with this news, would lose its top six players from a team that won the program’s second consecutive Class A title.
Everyone outside of Marian anticipated a changing of the guard. No longer would the Mustangs be the team to beat in the Detroit Catholic League, and any thoughts of a third consecutive title were dismissed.
That’s not all. Senior McKenna Landis, who would have been a three-year varsity player and the starting point guard, suffered a season-ending knee ligament injury in a non-basketball incident.
Mary Cicerone is in her 33rd season as head coach, and she’s uncertain whether she’s entered a season before where experience, and the amount of seniors, was at such a premium.
But as far as assessing coaches, Cicerone is at the top in maintaining a competitive edge, and thus, a positive outlook.
“Most of my players play more than one sport,” Cicerone said. “Many (five) play soccer. Another plays volleyball. For the first time, basketball is second fiddle to most of my players.
“We’re going to show up. I thought we’d be competitive. What are we, 9-3 now? I thought we should be 10-2. I’m competitive. I have some good athletes. We’re figuring out what they’re good at.”
Marian is 9-2 and, at 6-1, in first place in the league’s Central Division. Its lone division loss was at Warren Regina, 35-33, on a shot at the buzzer. Few would have thought this before the season but, at this point, Marian is the favorite to win the league title. Should the Mustangs win the title, it would be Cicerone’s 13th.
If it happens, it’s not a fluke. Like all of Cicerone’s teams, this one plays defense – and few teams, at least in Metro Detroit, play defense with more intensity than Marian.
Take the Regina game as an example. Marian trailed by 11 points late in the third quarter. The Mustangs forced 10 turnovers in the fourth quarter and nearly shocked the Saddlelites.
Maria Hickey and Elizabeth Grobbel are the only seniors on the team and quite possibly Cicerone’s hardest workers.
Hickey said it’s up to her and Grobbel to set an example for the younger players. Last season they earned valuable experience during and more so in practice going against the state’s best.
“We returned four players,” Hickey said. “We didn’t know McKenna would be out. We were very underestimated. We adjusted well. We had a target on our back. Everyone wants to say they beat the defending state champs.
“Defense has to be above the offense. Defense takes up 60, 70 percent of our practices. Maybe more. We press some. Our favorite is the man-to-man, full court. We never play zone. (Cicerone) laughs when we bring it up. We also run the 1-2-2 zone press. We call it the mustang. It’s risky. When it works, it works great. It changes things up.
“Experience? Every player has experience in the program. But not everyone has experience playing this type of defense.”
This team doesn’t have a go-to player. Grobbel, a 6-1 forward, might be the team’s top 3-point shooter. Lauren Montalbano, a 5-5 junior, is one of the best at going to the basket. And at point guard, Olivia Moore is a fine ball handler, but she’s a freshman still gaining varsity experience. Uche Ike, a 5-11 sophomore, is a strong and athletic post player but didn’t start playing basketball until the eighth grade and is still learning the fundamentals.
“I told the kids in the beginning that we’re not going to win because we’re great basketball players,” Cicerone said. “It’s our defense that will carry us. Many of them don’t pick up a basketball until November. I ask them, why shoot? You haven’t touched a basketball in months.”
Cicerone is all for her players to play other sports. And it’s these other sports that are their main ones. But it does try her patience when some compete in travel leagues or AAU events so much so they miss a practice here or there, and a game now and then.
On the other side of the coin, playing the other sports does contribute to their athleticism. For a team like Marian that relies heavily on defense, having good, all-around athletes is a plus.
Cicerone knows her team will have a challenge competing with Class A powers like Saginaw Heritage and Southfield-Lathrup in the MHSAA Tournament. But it’s not a stretch to forecast the Mustangs winning another league title, possibly a District title, and pulling off an upset in the Regionals.
Whatever the opposition, no matter how talented they are, Cicerone refuses to give in. Marian has won six MHSAA titles with her on the bench, and a coach doesn’t win that many by taking anything for granted.
“I’ve had my day in the sun,” Cicerone said. “I go up and down with my team. I don’t expect much on offense. But we can play defense.
“We’re not going to do what we’re not good at. We want them to do the things they are good at."
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marian's Uche Ike works to move the ball upcourt against Farmington Hills Mercy. (Middle) Hannah Redoute works to corral a loose ball. (Below) Elizabeth Grobbel moves to the basket with a pair of Mercy players defending. (Photos courtesy of the Bloomfield Hills Marian athletic department.)
Championship time is quickly approaching this girls basketball season.
We’re still three weeks out from the start of District play. But league contenders are clashing all over the state, with a handful of conferences finishing up their schedules this week and several favorites facing off soon with titles on the line. We make mention of a number of those below.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. West Bloomfield 59, Detroit Edison 49 Last season, West Bloomfield (15-2) became the first in-state team to defeat Edison (12-3) since 2018 – and the Lakers have become the only one to do so again this winter.
2. Maple City Glen Lake 51, Traverse City St. Francis 45 The Lakers (13-2) are up to No. 2 in Division 4 MPR, while St. Francis (12-2) sits No. 4 in Division 3.
3. Holt 55, DeWitt 53 The Rams (14-2) sit alone atop the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue after sending the Panthers (13-2) into second in a matchup of top Division 1 teams statewide.
4. Hancock 50, Calumet 47 The Bulldogs (13-1) maintained their one-game lead in the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference West with their second win this season over third-place Calumet (11-3). Both are among the top seven statewide in Division 3 MPR.
5. Detroit Edison 44, Farmington Hills Mercy 42 The Pioneers bounced back from the West Bloomfield loss with a pair of close wins, this one over Mercy (14-2) followed by a one-pointer over Grand Rapids Catholic Central on Saturday.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (11-5) After a 2-4 start with those losses to top Division 1 and 2 teams statewide, Reeths-Puffer is 9-3 and tied for first in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green with Muskegon after edging the Big Reds 56-52 on Friday. That avenged a 14-point loss to Muskegon on Jan. 6, and the Rockets have since gone on an eight-game winning streak. They also opened last week with a 42-39 victory over 11-win Ludington.
Wayne Memorial (13-4) The Zebras further solidified their standing atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East standings with last week’s 75-57 win over second-place Belleville. That followed up a 44-41 win over the Tigers on Jan. 6, and total Wayne has won 12 straight since a 1-3 start that included two-point losses to Division 1 contenders Detroit Renaissance and Hudsonville and a third defeat to Illinois power Chicago Whitney Young.
Goodrich (14-1) The Martians are locked in another battle atop the Flint Metro League Stars with Lake Fenton and trail the Blue Devils by a game after a 50-44 loss Jan. 20. That’s Goodrich’s only defeat, and they’ll attempt to avenge it in the league finale Feb. 17. In the meantime, the Martians can continue their statewide push upward with 13-win Flushing coming up Wednesday and 15-win Ovid-Elsie next week as well.
Redford Westfield Prep (11-6) The Warriors take on many of the state’s best, evidenced by their No. 8 MPR despite six losses. Westfield has won seven of its last eight games, the lone defeat during that streak 55-53 to still-undefeated Flint Carman-Ainsworth on Jan. 16 – and with perhaps its most notable instate win of the season 46-45 in double overtime Jan. 12 over reigning Division 3 champion Ypsilanti Arbor Prep.
McBain (13-4) The Highland Conference race could go down to the finish, especially after McBain avenged its earlier 17-point loss to second-place Evart with a 51-35 win last week. McBain also has a six-point loss to league leader Lake City from Jan. 20, but can avenge that in the regular-season finale Feb. 23. The Ramblers additionally have a pair of victories over 12-win Beal City and a solid early loss to still-undefeated Division 2 Escanaba.
Ovid-Elsie (15-2) The Marauders haven’t slowed down a bit after last season’s 21-2 finish with league and District titles, the latter in Division 2. This season in Division 3, Ovid-Elsie is up to No. 6 in MPR with a 14-game winning streak since suffering its lone losses early to Pewamo-Westphalia (10-5) and Dansville (15-1). The Marauders handed Mackinaw City its first defeat Saturday, 59-55 on a neutral court, and also has a victory over 14-win Ithaca plus a two-game lead in the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference.
Fowler (11-6) Coming off back-to-back Division 4 championships, Fowler put together a schedule featuring solid-to-strong teams from Divisions 1-4 and sit No. 3 in Division 4 MPR. The losses have come to Midland Dow, Haslett, Lansing Catholic, Kent City and league rivals Dansville and Portland St. Patrick, and the Eagles avenged the Shamrocks defeat 51-44 last week. Fowler will need help to catch Dansville in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference, down two games from the league leader, but will try to get one back from the Aggies on Feb. 14.
Norway (16-1) The Knights are leading the large-school division of the Skyline Central Conference with the likely deciding matchup coming at Bark River-Harris next week. Norway has lost only to Niagara (Wis.), by five two weeks ago, and handed Carney-Nadeau (13-2) one of its losses among other strong work – and after ending last season’s 11-10 run with a 15-point District loss to the Wolves.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Coldwater (15-1) at Jackson Northwest (15-1) – The Mounties lead Coldwater by a win in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference thanks to a 50-46 win in their first meeting Jan. 10.
Tuesday – Utica Ford (14-1) at Grosse Pointe North (13-2) – North has clinched a share of the Macomb Area Conference Red title heading into tonight’s league finale, while Ford won by a large margin in the MAC White.
Thursday – Houghton (13-1) at Hancock (13-1) – As noted above, Hancock leads the West-PAC West by a game – but will face second-place Houghton twice over the next two weeks.
Friday – Standish-Sterling (15-1) at Hemlock (13-3) – Hemlock owns the lead in the Tri-Valley Conference West 10-1 thanks to a 62-31 doubling up in the first meeting Jan. 6. But that remains the Panthers’ lone loss, and they’ve since handed TVC 10-2 co-leader Saginaw Valley Lutheran one of its two defeats.
Friday – Saline (15-2) at Temperance Bedford (16-1) – Saline is first and Bedford second in the Southeastern Conference Red thanks to Saline’s 41-22 win in their first meeting Jan. 27.
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PHOTOS (Top) A trio of Fowler defenders surround a Bath player driving to the basket during a 49-27 win earlier this season; they meet again Thursday. (Middle) Maddie Bradford of Maple City Glen Lake contests a shot by Maggie Napont of Traverse City St. Francis during the Lakers' 51-45 win over the Gladiators last week. (Top photo by Click by Christine McCallister. Middle photo by Rick Sack/TC Rick Photo.)