Riley Sisters, Fowler Shine on Statewide Stage

By Jason Schmitt
Special for

April 9, 2021

EAST LANSING — Fowler certainly is a small town.

Located just 30 miles northwest of Lansing, everyone in town knows everyone. And if they didn’t already know the Riley sisters’ prowess on the basketball court, they sure do now. 

Sisters Mia and Emma Riley combined to score 34 points in leading Fowler to a 54-20 victory over Bellaire on Friday in the Division 4 title game at the Breslin Center. It was Fowler’s first MHSAA Finals championship since 1991. 

“I’ll constantly have relatives who drive by their house and they’ll say, all the time, that they’re in their driveway playing one-on-one,” Fowler head coach Nathan George said of the sisters. “So it’s no coincidence that they’re in this spot, that they’re this good. All their hard work is paying off.”

Emma Riley, a sophomore, scored the first four points of the game and her older sister, Riley, scored her team’s first nine points of the second quarter as Fowler overwhelmed Bellaire early on. Fowler led 29-7 at halftime. It shot 48 percent from the field while limiting Bellaire to just three field goals and 12 percent shooting.

“We have confidence that teams will struggle against our speed and aggressiveness,” George said. “It hasn’t worked every game, but for the most part I think teams have a hard time adjusting to it because we have so many guards we can rotate in. It worked pretty well tonight. 

“When we get those fast starts and the girls get their confidence, it’s a pretty special thing to see.” 

Bellaire struggled throughout the first half, connecting on just 3 of 25 shots. It was just 1 for 11 in the first quarter and at one point missed 13 straight shots while falling behind 17-3.

“It definitely is upsetting because normally we can bounce back when shots aren’t falling in,” Bellaire senior Katie Decker said. “We have confidence in each other and hold each other up. Normally they’re going in, but I don’t know what was happening today. I guess nerves and we never settled in, but we did the best we could.”

Fowler’s defense played a big part in Bellaire’s shooting woes. George’s team collected 12 steals and forced 18 turnovers in the game. The Riley sisters accounted for eight of those steals.

2021 D4 Girls Basketball Final - Fowler

“They can shoot and they can defend,” Bellaire head coach Brad Fisher said. “They shot the ball so well and they just play a different level of defense. We knew it was coming, but to simulate it, you can’t. I don’t know that we could have done too much differently when a team shoots like that and can defend like that.”

Mia Riley, a junior, was 6 for 8 shooting in the first half, while Emma was 3 for 5.

“I try to go into the game with a lot of confidence and I know my sister does too,” said Mia, a junior. “Coach always tells us, ‘Be confident and if you get a shot, it’s going up.’ So that’s kind of our mentality. We just didn’t want to hold back this game.”

Emma Riley said she didn’t let the arena atmosphere get to her.

“(Coach) always says if you get an open look, shoot it. So nothing changed on this court,” Emma said. “We kept saying that it was an important game, but it’s just like it was back at Fowler. We just tried not to overthink it and shoot with confidence like always.”

Mia Riley finished with a game-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds and three steals. Emma Riley had 16 points, seven rebounds and five steals for Fowler (16-4). Junior Emma Halfmann and sophomore Grace Epkey each added six points.

George said he’s known how good the Riley sisters are on the basketball court. But after Friday’s performance, other people will, too.

“Being from a small town, I don’t think people get to appreciate them,” George said. “We don’t get a lot of media coverage. There aren’t a lot of people in our gyms. Their skill level is incredible. I appreciate that we get to this type of stage, where others can appreciate how good they are.”

Bellaire finished its season with an 18-4 record. Decker and junior Jacey Somers led the team with six points apiece. 

“Our girls had a pretty darn good season, too,” Fisher said. “We’ve talked about what this team has done and what this team is capable of. We have so many people to thank, the community, the MHSAA has been awesome. 

“I’m just so proud of my girls. This was a fun ride. Eventually the season has to come to an end. And we had a couple special victories along the way. It’s obviously not the outcome we wanted, but we still made history.”

Click for full box score

PHOTOS: (Top) Fowler's Avery Koenigsknecht (3) works to get past Bellaire's Emersyn Koekpe during Friday's Division 4 Final. (Middle) Fowler's Leah Wieber (22) works to get to the basket. (Click for more from 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.)