By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Saginaw Nouvel holds daily school Mass in its gymnasium, allowing Rachel McInerney and her teammates to reflect on a few things – including photos of the Panthers’ 2006 and 2008 MHSAA championship teams staring back at them.
“And every day in practice, we’d say our picture is going to be up there no matter what,” McInerney said.
In her final opportunity Saturday, Nouvel’s 6-foot-2 senior center more than did her part to make that true.
With lingering regrets from last season’s Class C championship game defeat to Manchester, McInerney seemed to take them out on St. Ignace with one of the most impressive statistical performances in MHSAA Finals history – 22 points, 23 rebounds and five blocked shots – as the Panthers broke away for a 62-40 win and the their third title.
“I just left it all the floor. I wanted to remember this game as a great thing,” McInerney said on the topic of redemption. “We more than achieved that.”
But it wasn’t as simple as a reigning runner-up returning to take the final step.
Nouvel entered this tournament ranked only No. 10 and after assistant Mary Jo Skiendziel was promoted to head coach with only two games left in the regular season.
But she couldn’t be more familiar. Skiendziel also is a Nouvel graduate and coached the freshmen basketball team for six seasons in addition to helping the varsity at the start of this winter. And she inherited some key leaders, including three who started in the 2013 Final.
“From the beginning, we knew our team would stick together through anything,” said Nouvel sophomore guard Laurel Jacqmain, one of the other two returning starters. “Our goal was to get back here, and we knew we could with each other. That’s what we were going to do.”
After handing Gobles its only loss of the season in Thursday’s Semifinal, the Panthers faced an even more imposing obstacle in St. Ignace – last season’s champion in Class D, which brought four starters back this weekend and was playing in its third championship game in four seasons.
That’s what made how Nouvel won a little shocking. Aside from 4-2 after the first minute, the Panthers never trailed – and led by as many as 26 after holding a one-point advantage at halftime.
“We came out in the second half on fire, and that’s exactly what we’ve done all season,” Skiendziel said, the championship trophy sitting beside her. “Nothing’s different except we have new wood to take home.”
McInerney also did her part as a leader, making sure her teammates soaked in the value of the moment during the game and reminding them to have fun. “Just because I experienced it last year, I know what it’s like to let it go by. I did not have fun last year,” McInerney said.
And her 23 rebounds were the third most in an MHSAA Final, fewer than only Kelly Rose’s 25 for St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic in the 1988 Class C championship game and Paula McGee’s 24 for Flint Northern in the 1979 Class A Final.
“She just intimidates,” St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls said. “She had maybe struggled a little bit, didn’t score like she usually does in the Semi (three points). But we knew what she was capable of, and she showed it today.”
McInerney had only four of her points during the 24-7 third-quarter run, but did grab six rebounds and block four shots during that 8-minute span. Jacqmain did most of the offensive damage during the period, scoring 13 of her game-high 23 points.
Junior guard Margo Brown scored a team-high 16 points for St. Ignace, and with sophomore center Abbey Ostman will attempt to lead the Saints back to Breslin for the sixth straight season in 2015. Senior Kelley Wright, who set an MHSAA record playing in her 102nd varsity win Thursday, had eight points and four steals in her final high school game.
“I don’t take losing very well, and I don’t know how long it will be before I take a look at these last two films,” Ingalls said. “But I wouldn’t want to be up here with another group of kids. It’s not the stuff on the floor. Everyone who meets them, gets to know them when we visit people, they become Saints fans for life. They wear their uniforms from the inside out.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Saginaw Nouvel’s Rachel McInerney (30) looks for an open teammate as St. Ignace’s Margo Brown defends. (Middle) Brown looks to drive against Nouvel’s Lindsay Stroebel on Saturday.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Lindsay Stroebel of Saginaw Nouvel makes a steal with time running out in the first quarter and beats the buzzer to give her team a 13-9 lead against St. Ignace. (2) Margo Brown led St. Ignace with 16 points. Here she cans a 3-pointer late in the first half to pull her team to within a point of the lead.
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.)