Nouvel Sets Stage for Photo Finish

March 14, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – A photo at the Hengesbach home shows Saginaw Nouvel coach Kris and her then-seventh grade daughter Taylor hugging after the Panthers’ first MHSAA girls basketball championship, in 2007.

They’re hoping to take the same picture Saturday, but this time with mom and daughter celebrating as champions together.

Nouvel earned that opportunity Thursday with a 44-32 Semifinal win over Houghton at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center. The Panthers will play in their fourth championship game under Hengesbach and for their first title since also repeating in 2008.

“Sometimes we drive separately to practice,” Taylor Hengesbach joked about being coached by her mom. “But no, I wouldn’t ask for anything else. It’s the best experience you can have.”

“Like Taylor said, it’s surreal,” Kris Hengesbach added. “I pinch myself every day that we get to share this journey together that we’ve always talked about. It’s pretty cool.”

At that, and in typical mother-daughter fashion, Taylor told her wet-eyed mom to stop before she too broke into tears.

No doubt, Kris Hengesbach could recognize she had this kind of team on the way. The No. 4 Panthers will face No. 3 Manchester at 4 p.m. Saturday for the championship.

And Taylor's had a good idea what it would take as well.

“I remember that (2007) team being so energetic and confident,” she said. “The school was so supportive, and we couldn't have done it without those aspects. The team chemistry and the student section, and everyone being involved.”

Nouvel student cheerers traveled en masse Thursday to see the Panthers jump to an 11-0 lead over the first five minutes. Houghton played Nouvel nearly even the rest of the way, but could get only within seven of the lead.

The No. 7 Gremlins (23-3) nearly pulled closer, just missing stealing the inbounds pass after junior Elisa Jurmu’s basket with 1:34 to play made the score 40-32. Instead, Houghton didn't score again.

Junior center Rachel McInerney had 16 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to lead the Panthers (25-2), and Hengesbach added 13 points.

Jurmu and senior guard Alexa Johnson led Houghton with 11 points each, but the Gremlins as a whole had a tough time getting established against the 6-2 McInerney in the post. Houghton was outrebounded 44-31 and shot only 20 percent from the floor while often being forced to attack from outside.

“It goes back to shooting. We missed shots we've hit throughout the season. Maybe they blocked a couple, maybe they got into our minds a little bit,” Houghton coach Julie Filpus said.

“The part that frustrated us is we feel good about our inside-outside attack. But their length affected our inside attack, and we had to rely on our perimeter (shooting). When shots don’t fall, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Nouvel has now beaten three top-10 teams during the tournament, in addition to Class B No. 1 Freeland and reigning Class D champion Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes during the regular season.

“With my experience as a coach and going through all of this, to me the key is you've got to have team leadership, and we have it. Talent obviously, and chemistry,” Kris Hengesbach said. “You can’t rely on one person every single night. We've got threats on the floor at every position, and everyone steps up every single game.

“I told them to just soak it up. It’s a special time, and they’re a special team.”

Click for the full box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Saginaw Nouvel's Taylor Hengesbach (44) drives around a Houghton defender during Thursday's Class C Semifinal. (Middle) Houghton's Alexa Johnson (13) looks for an open teammate. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Few in Number, Tecumseh Pursuing Sizable Success with Zajacs Setting Pace

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

December 5, 2023

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. 

Southeast & BorderNow, 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.” 

Kristy Zajac coaches her team, which finished 20-5 in 2022-23. 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 DonnellyDoug 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.)