It wasn’t long ago that Port Huron Northern’s girls basketball team started scheduling measuring stick games.
The Huskies put teams like Detroit Country Day, Flint Powers and Detroit Martin Luther King on the schedule to see what it was like to play against the best in the state.
Now, in coach Mark Dickinson’s ninth season, the Huskies still have those games on the schedule. They’re just looking more like the “measuring stick” team for their opponents, instead.
“It’s a great feeling,” Northern senior Kendyl Keyes said. “A couple years ago, it’s hard to believe that we would have been at this point, because you’re coming in, you’re so young, and it’s like, ‘Wow, we really did make it.’
“All this work that we put in, that the coaches put in, it’s paid off.”
Northern is 7-0 to start the season, with big early-season wins against Farmington Hills Mercy and Williamston. The Huskies are ranked No. 2 in Class A and No. 4 in the Super 10 by Tom Markowski of State Champs! Sports Network.
The biggest early-season game, however, comes tonight when Northern plays host to reigning Class A champion Warren Cousino, a team it defeated twice a year ago to prove it belongs in the conversation of the state’s best teams.
“I think the kids are more and more confident that we can play with anybody as a team,” Dickinson said. “We pride ourselves on having a team. We don’t have Miss Michigan, but we have a lot of good players from top to bottom.”
It’s a long way from where the Huskies were less than 10 year ago.
Point Guard University
Dickinson’s tenure as varsity coach had humble beginnings. In his first season (2008-09), the Huskies went 1-20, and he and his coaching staff decided to focus on basic fundamentals.
“The first year, we were limited because three kids moved away,” Dickinson said. “We were playing with people who were out of position, so we said, ‘Hey, we’re going to play good D, we’re going to start with that. It’s like building a house, and laying the foundation.’ The first two or three years, that’s what we talked about, that we were going to lay one layer of bricks, lay another layer of bricks.
“The first two years, I had a segment of practice called Point Guard University, where we had them all do tons of ball-handling. We were having some struggles with ball-handling, so we made everybody improve their ball-handling, and it started growing from there.”
It worked. Over the next six seasons, Northern managed to win more games than it had the year before: 9-12 in 2009-10, then 11-10, 17-4 (with a conference title), 18-5 (conference title), 19-7 and 21-4 in 2014-15. Last season also saw 21 wins (21-5), and a co-Macomb Area Conference Red title shared with that eventual Class A champion Cousino.
While it was an entirely different set of girls doing the winning, Dickinson gives a lot of credit for the recent success to the girls who came before them.
“Even the groups before that that didn’t win Districts, they really started to compete and put themselves in position to win games. We just didn’t have quite enough depth at that time, or enough shooters,” Dickinson said. “They were the building blocks of the program. I look back at those early teams, those kids were the ones that kind of set the tone that we’re working in March and April; instead of sitting home and watching TV on Sunday, we’re going to be up here working. Those kids started it, and then it just kind of snowballed.”
While the program started taking off in 2012, its postseason breakthrough didn’t come until 2014 when it won a Regional title, its first under Dickinson. It was also the first District title under Dickinson, and the first of three straight.
Last season, Northern repeated the feat, winning another Class A Regional title before falling in the Quarterfinal against St. Johns. All of that in a season many saw as a rebuilding year, as Northern had graduated a strong senior class the year before.
Thanks to the foundation the Huskies have built, however, rebuilding has turned into reloading.
“I think, partly, we’ve got a really good coaching staff from top to bottom,” Dickinson said. “That’s huge for skill development during the season. During the offseason, we put a lot of time in, and the kids have bought into that. We’ve had kids that have made a commitment to come in year-round and work on their shot, work on their ball-handling. When we do our team stuff in the summer, I know a lot of teams have trouble getting their whole teams there, but I usually have everybody there.”
While the talent and depth continues to grow for the Huskies, the work ethic instilled on those early teams has remained the same.
“We’ve just been in the gym a lot together as a whole,” senior Jenna Koppinger said. “Whenever you want to come in, the coaches are here. If you want to go at 6 a.m., they’re here. If you want to go at 6 at night the same day, they’re back again. That’s really what’s founded it.”
The early-season tests against top-level competition have helped take the Huskies to their current level, but so has playing in the Macomb Area Conference Red, which Dickinson considers one of the best conferences in the state. The Huskies also have traveled throughout the summer to play against the best and in big venues, including at the legendary St. Cecelia’s in Detroit.
All of that combined has created a team that isn’t afraid to play on the biggest stages or wildest environments.
“It’s so exciting – it’s fun,” senior Bree Bauer said. “It gives you a lot of adrenaline, and I think it makes me play better.”
This year’s team features six seniors – Keyes, Koppinger, Bauer, Cassidy Koschnitzke, Brooke Austin and Kathleen O’Connor – as well as an experienced, play-making junior in Sami Klink. But beyond the experience, there’s a large group of girls waiting for their turn.
Dickinson said several members of his junior varsity team would be varsity players most years, but with his current depth he simply can’t bring them up. His JV squad was a perfect 20-0 a year ago, and spent the summer holding its own against varsity teams, so don’t expect the Huskies to fade away any time soon.
Of course, there’s still plenty to accomplish in the present. With its foundation solidly built, Northern can now look to break through its ceiling, something recent results show it’s more than capable of doing.
“A lot of people think you can’t win a state championship in Port Huron,” Dickinson said. “I’m not going to go that far. We have to keep getting better, and it would nice to make a run at it – we’ve been close. If you get to Breslin Center, you never know what’s going to happen, so we’re knocking on the door. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get there, but we’re working towards it. If you don’t have a goal like that, you’re never going to achieve it.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Northern's Sami Klink moves the ball around the perimeter against Detroit Cass Tech on Dec. 28 at the Motor City Roundball Classic. (Middle) The Huskies hoist the championship trophy after defeating Croswell-Lexington on Dec. 22 to win the Port Huron Holiday Tournament. (Photos by Jill O'Connor.)
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.)