GOBLES — One coach retired and one coach was hired, but both have one reason in common: family.
After 18 years leading the Gobles girls basketball team, John Curtis hung up his whistle.
“My two boys are the biggest reason,” Curtis said of Kellen, 13, and Gibson, 11.
“I just wanted to spend more time with them. Instead of being in a gym coaching on Tuesday and Friday, I would rather be with them studying or just having some Friday night fun.”
Greg Barber took over the position after coaching the junior varsity girls for five years.
That gives him more time to spend with his daughter, Amanda, a junior in her third year on varsity.
His other daughter, Erica, is an eighth grader who also plays basketball.
“I brought my daughters up through the youth program, so I was involved in that when they were in the third grade on up,” Barber said. “I just like coaching.”
One goal for the 8-3 Tigers is continued success in the MHSAA postseason which begins March 22 with District play.
Last year, Gobles won their District and then lost a 42-41 heartbreaker to Schoolcraft in a Division 3 Regional Semifinal. (Soon after, the season was put on hold and final rounds eventually canceled due to COVID-19.)
Last year’s success was actually another factor that prompted Curtis’ retirement.
“I didn't want to be one of those coaches that retired when the program was struggling,” he said.
“We have a great group of young ladies back and some solid young talent that helped in my decision as well.”
He said handing the coaching reins to Barber was easy.
“He has been in the program for a very long time as a youth and JV coach and has a great rapport with the team,” Curtis said.
“Having (current junior varsity) Coach V. (Marc VanHeukelum) around was a big help as well. He's been by my side forever, and they will keep the program at an elite level.”
Junior guard Amanda Barber, who joined the varsity midway through her freshman season, did not see much of a change when her father took over as coach.
“They have different coaching styles, I would say, but overall they both are good coaches so it’s not hard to be coached by one or the other,” she said.
“Mr. Curtis is probably a little more in-your-face, and he’ll tell you how it is. My dad’s a little more laid back.”
The 5-foot-4 Barber leads the team in points, averaging 16 per game, and assists with three per game. Senior Karlee Henderson leads with seven rebounds per game.
“Amanda’s put hours and hours in the gym working on her game and her shooting,” he dad said. “Just countless hours of work.”
Other juniors on the team are Madi Brady, McKenzie Lisowski and Emily Baxter.
Other seniors are Keaghan Kelly, Abby Sandahl and Deven Thompson. The lone sophomore is Kaya Huizenga.
Moving Up, Staying Together
Kennadi Killeen made the jump from eighth grade hoops to varsity without playing a game of JV.
That took a bit of adjustment.
“The game just got a lot faster and the girls got a lot bigger,” the freshman guard said. “You don’t have as much time between shots to think about everything, so you just have to know what you’re going to do before you do it.”
The pandemic restrictions limiting fans in the stands actually helped Killeen.
‘It did make the transition a lot easier because there weren’t a lot of people watching,” she said. “There weren’t as many people to be afraid of making a mistake in front of,” she added, laughing.
Killeen has worked her way into the starting lineup.
“She’s averaging five or six points a game and about five rebounds as a freshman, so she’s doing real well,” Barber said.
Deanna Wood is the other freshman on the team.
The coach said team unity is a key to their success.
“The junior class has played together since third grade so they’ve played the travel ball, some AAU stuff,” he said. “They’ve stuck together.
“It’s a very talented, athletic group. A couple young freshmen on the team this year have played a lot of basketball.”
Barber said working with the girls when he coached the JV team helped him with the move to varsity.
“I’ve coached them all through their JV years, so it was a pretty simple transition,” he said.
“They know what we do, they know what we want, they know what we like, so it went pretty smooth.”
In his 18 years as head coach, Curtis’ teams compiled a 304-107 record, won 10 conference, eight District and two Regional championships, making it to the Semifinals once.
There are a few things Curtis will not miss.
“If I’m going to be 100 percent honest,” he said, “I won't miss dealing with all of the aspects off the court. The players and parents are changing just like society, which can make the job really tough.
“I've realized that as a coach you can't make everyone happy, and not too many people can see the entire picture these days.”
But since retiring, “the one thing I miss is those tough Friday night road games,” he said. “There is nothing better than going to an opponent's gym with a buzz in the gym and silencing their crowd with a win.
“I always took pride in how mentally tough my teams were, and that competitive feeling after those types of wins will be missed.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Gobles junior McKenzie Lisowski looks to break a trap against Allegan this season. (2) Gobles varsity girls basketball coach Greg Barber. (3) Tigers junior Amanda Barber makes her way through Coloma's defense. (4) Gobles freshman Kennadi Killeen. (5) Recently retired Gobles varsity coach John Curtis with sons Gibson and Kellen. (Action photos by Gala Rock. Head shots by Pam Shebest. Curtis photo courtesy of Curtis family.)
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.)