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 [email protected] 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.)
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.)