DETROIT – Detroit Renaissance has had one of the top girls basketball programs in the Detroit Public School League for some time.
The Phoenix reached an MHSAA Final (Class B) for the first time in 1996. In 2005, Renaissance won its only title (also in Class B) with Diane Jones serving as head coach and current head coach Kiwan Ward a member of her staff. Renaissance reached the Class A Final in 2010 and 2011, also with Ward as an assistant coach.
The Phoenix are 14-3 this winter, having lost to Detroit Martin Luther King in a PSL semifinal 56-47 on Feb. 8. They are enjoying another successful season even after graduating one of the top players in the state in 2015-16, now-Penn State freshman Siyeh Frazier, and despite the challenges of a changing landscape in PSL girls hoops.
While Ward believes the distance between the PSL’s most and least successful programs has grown in recent years, Renaissance remains stable. In her sixth season as head coach, Ward has 11 varsity players and continues to field a competitive junior varsity while others in the league are having a tough time doing the same.
“We have good chemistry,” senior Victoria Wright said of this year’s team. “It’s our defense that helps us win. The bond we have on and off the court is special. We always have a good time together.”
All eight of the Phoenix's league wins this winter were by double figures, and in six of those wins they held opponents to 25 or fewer points.
Renaissance’s only other losses this season were twice to Detroit Mumford, which will play King for the PSL title Saturday. (Renaissance and Mumford both finished 8-2 in league play to tie for first in the PSL West Division 1, but Mumford because of its sweep of the Phoenix earned the league title and a top seed in the PSL Big D Tournament.)
Despite graduating Frazier, the Phoenix returned three starters from last season’s 14-5 team and are more balanced this winter. They are led by seniors Wright and Nina Reynolds; Wright is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds per game, and Reynolds is averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds.
In addition to its PSL success, Renaissance also owns a 15-point win from December over Southfield Arts & Technology, the leader in the Oakland Activities Association Red and another expected Class A contender.
A game of that caliber has helped the Phoenix as the degree of parity in girls basketball in the PSL has shifted of late, creating challenges for some of the strongest programs.
It’s the drop-off in many others that has hurt teams like Renaissance, Detroit Cass Tech, Detroit King and Detroit Mumford that remain the most competitive. There are just four PSL programs that sponsor a junior varsity, which leads to scheduling difficulties, as Ward has seen players leave for schools outside the city.
Ward said she doesn’t blame parents for sending their children to other Wayne County schools with open enrollment. Ward said uncertainty within the Detroit Public Schools as to which schools will remain open and which will close has parents on edge.
It’s reported that as many as 24 schools in DPS will close this year. Rumors abound which schools will close, but at this time they are just that: rumors.
“Look at it from a broader point of view,” Ward said. “The talent is watered down (in the PSL). I remember when I (played) at Detroit Benedictine. We looked forward to playing PSL teams. Every game was competitive. No disrespect to anyone, but it’s hard for the girls to get geeked-up when you beat someone 74-11.”
That was the score when Renaissance won in the first round of the PSL playoffs, defeating a former league power now in the midst of a tough run.
It’s different for the boys, where competition remains high. Sure, there aren’t powerhouse teams like Detroit Southwestern and Detroit Cooley of the late 1980s and early 1990s (although Detroit Western and Henry Ford both won their first MHSAA boys titles over the last two seasons), but there aren’t nearly the number of one-sided games in league play as there are for the girls.
“There are eight to 10 teams on the boys side that are good,” Ward said. “With Cass Tech being down this year, we have like three good teams.”
Wright said she hopes to continue playing at the next level, possibly at Coastal Carolina. She said playing teams like King, Mumford and Southfield Arts & Technology brings out the best in her and her teammates.
Last season King defeated Renaissance in the PSL final, 68-66, to win its fifth consecutive league title.
“When you win by so much, it’s tough to play those games,” she said. “The competitive nature just isn’t there. It’s not that we’re not trying hard.
"It makes a big difference when you play those tougher teams."
Still, the top of the PSL remains strong – Renaissance included. King is expected to contend for its sixth Class A title under coach William Winfield and after finishing runner-up a year ago. Mumford also could make noise again in Class B.
Ward isn’t concerned about her program. It’s the others she’s worried about.
The Phoenix will finish their regular season next week against Detroit Country Day and Romulus before starting District play.
“The future in the PSL is uncertain,” Ward said. “For us, we’ll continue to get better.”
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) Detroit Renaissance starters are introduced during a game this season. (Middle) Nina Reynolds (left) and Victoria Wright. (Below) The Phoenix set up their defense. (Photos courtesy of the Detroit Renaissance girls basketball program.)
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.)