EAST LANSING – With Thursday night’s Division 4 Semifinal hanging in the balance, Fowler coach Nathan George knew who he could count on.
In fact, he knew two players he could look lean on in tense moments, and they happen to be from the same family.
Emma and Mia Riley made clutch free throws during the final minute to stave off a furious comeback attempt from upset-minded Baraga.
The Eagles hung on to defeat the Vikings 51-45 at the Breslin Center and advance to the Finals for the second straight year as they seek to repeat as Division 4 champions.
“They play a lot of basketball, so there’s not a lot of situations where they get truly overwhelmed,” George said. “So I had confidence in them that they were going to hit free throws. It got crazy late, but we were lucky the ball bounced our way and we were able to put the game away.”
Mia Riley, a senior, delivered a double-double with a game-high 24 points and 11 rebounds, while Emma, a junior, had 17 points and nine rebounds.
Clinging to a one-point lead (45-44) with 54 seconds left, Mia Riley made a pair of free throws to extend the lead.
After Baraga’s Reide Osterman made 1 of 2 free throws, it was Emma Riley’s turn with 29 seconds left, and she too calmly knocked down both to give the Eagles a four-point cushion.
“It’s like everything you’ve ever practiced for and it makes all that hard work pay off when you can be in that position and finally get the chance to prove yourself,” Mia Riley said. “That was the time to step up, and I’m thankful that I did it.”
Said Emma Riley: “It was pretty scary to be up there and just knowing that we needed the free throws, but we just had to do exactly what we always practice and they should fall.”
Fowler (23-3) will have the opportunity to repeat as Division 4 champion facing Plymouth Christian Academy in Saturday’s 10 a.m. Final.
“Since we've been here before, we’re somewhat used to playing at the Breslin so it’s kind of a comforting thing to know that we’ve been here and we’ve done it before,” Mia Riley said. “We can do it again, and we have those capabilities. It’s a lot nicer since we can have the stands filled and it's not so quiet like last year.”
Fowler built a commanding first-quarter lead as its defense forced turnovers that led to easy baskets on the other end.
Avery Koenigsknecht knocked down a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap a 12-0 run as the Eagles held a 17-4 advantage.
Baraga trimmed the deficit to 28-18 by halftime and got as close as one from the lead twice during the decisive fourth quarter.
“Give Baraga a lot of credit because they played a good game and probably worked harder than us overall,” George said. “That's something I didn’t expect, and we need to be much more focused and play with more energy come Saturday. I fully believe we will, but I hope this was a wake-up call for the girls and I know it was for me.”
Baraga (23-2) was making its first trip to the Semifinals since 1992, and was the only Upper Peninsula school to make it this far this week.
First-year coach Tyler Larson was proud of his team’s effort in nearly erasing the early double-digit deficit and upsetting the reigning champion.
“Just a tough one,” Larson said. “We didn’t come out the way we wanted to, but we kept it close enough where we could hang around in the second half.
“It was like a boxing match with taking turns swinging and landing punches. We climbed our way back, and I’m very proud of the way the girls handled a little adversity on such a big stage. We just fell a little short in the end.”
Osterman, a senior, led the Vikings with 17 points and nine rebounds, while sophomore Makenna Hendrickson added eight points and eight rebounds.
PHOTOS (Top) Fowler’s Mia Riley (25) drives the lane during Thursday’s Division 4 Semifinal win at Breslin Center. (Middle) Baraga’s Kylie Michaelson (15) gets a shot up over the Eagles’ defense. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)