By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
When the Adrian Lenawee Christian girls basketball team beat Portland St. Patrick to win a Class D Regional Semifinal this week, first-year Cougars head coach Jamie Salenbien didn’t need to look far to find someone to hug.
His wife, Debbie, was sitting a few feet away at the scorer’s table.
Next on the to-do list was find and hug his daughter, Dani, an LCS sophomore who dribbled away the final seconds for the Cougars after scoring a game-high 21 points. Last, but not least, there was another daughter, freshman phenom Bree, who had just scored 19 points and had several key baskets during Lenawee Christian’s second-half rally. His sons, Tyler and Jaxon, were nearby, too, and ready for a quick high-five.
For the Salenbien family, basketball is a passion. Whether it’s in the family’s backyard in Lenawee County or on a basketball court somewhere in southeast Michigan, the “silly game” as Coach Salenbien calls it not only has meant a lot to his family, but to the Lenawee Christian family, too.
“Our community is very much behind us,” Jamie Salenbien said. “It’s a great wave of support. We’re enjoying every minute of it.”
The Cougars won the school’s first Regional title since 2010 on Thursday, beating Plymouth Christian, and will play Athens (21-4) on Tuesday in the Quarterfinal at Richland Gull Lake. LCS is 23-1 and on a 16-game win streak. It’s only loss this season was to Class A Monroe. That loss was by one point, 41-40.
Jamie Salenbien is a Hudson native who played college basketball at Siena Heights University in Adrian. He once scored 50 points in a game in high school but doesn’t like to talk about any individual honors or accolades he has received. He and Debbie have been married 18 years. They met at a friend’s wedding – and that friend was at the Regional game this week in Morrice. Debbie played basketball at Allen Park Inter-City Baptist and in college, too.
The family always has loved a little competition.
“When our kids were little, we played a lot of games,” Coach Salenbien said. “Of course, we played a lot of basketball, too. And, I coached them when they were young. And, when I coached at Onsted, they were always around. The girls spent a lot of time around the game, and they fell in love with it. I love it, Debbie loves it, so it’s just a good match.”
Dani said the family talks basketball quite a bit – even at dinner. But, she said, she’s fine with it.
“It’s a part of our family,” Dani said. “It always has been. It’s interesting some of the time. But, its part of who we are.”
Dani, 16, burst onto the prep basketball scene in Lenawee County last season, showing remarkable poise for her age and quickly becoming the team’s go-to player even though they had an all-stater in Kiera Nieto. Bree, 14, joined the varsity this season and finished the regular season as Lenawee County’s top scorer. At 6-foot-2, she runs the floor like a point guard and posts up like a center. She’s the point person on the LCS full-court press, making it difficult for anyone to throw it over her head.
Entering the Regional, Bree Salenbien had averages of 21.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.5 steals, 3.2 blocks and 3.0 assists per game.
“She can score inside and out,” her father said. “She’s a tough matchup for anyone. We try and utilize her best we can in that fashion.”
Dani’s numbers are just as impressive. She averages 13.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 4.0 steals a game.
Both girls take after their parents – humble, full of smiles and deflecting of the attention.
“I love my teammates to death, and we do it all together,” Dani said. “That makes it all better. We have a term called ‘84-50’ (which are the dimensions, in feet, of a basketball court). We keep everything on the floor. We don’t think of anything outside of the gym or the court. We’re all about each other. I can’t do anything without my teammates.”
Bree said she and her sister have a special relationship on the court.
“I usually know where she is,” she said. “We have a connection. She’s a great ball handler. I know I need to get the ball to her. She’s a great player. My dad is a great coach. My mom is amazing. My brothers are great fans. We just love it.”
Debbie Salenbien works at LCS and serves as the scorekeeper for the team. Just before the tipoff of Thursday’s Regional championship game, after the starting lineups were introduced, both girls walked over to their mom, gave her a fist bump and handed her their warm-up shirts.
“We talk a lot about basketball,” Debbie said. “Basketball is always on television. We go to some University of Michigan games. We just love basketball.”
When the season ends, Jamie said he will have time to reflect on just how special this season has been for not only the Lenawee Christian community but his own family.
And, it looks like there are plenty of more good times to come. The Cougars start a freshman, three sophomores and a junior.
“They put a tremendous amount of time into this silly game,” he said of his daughters and their teammates. “We preach fundamentals – how to pass, catch, dribble, shoot. The whole experience has been awesome. I have to let it soak in more, but I know it’s awesome.”
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 Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian freshman Bree Salenbien brings the ball upcourt; she led Lenawee County in scoring average this season at 21 ppg. (Middle) Basketball is a passion for the Salenbien family, including head coach Jamie, his wife Debbie (at the scorers table) and sophomore Dani Salenbien, here during Thursday’s Regional Final win over Plymouth Christian. (Photos by Mike Dickie.)
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.)