DETROIT – Twelve months ago Detroit Edison was considered an up-and-coming program.
With all underclassmen in the starting lineup, any success the Pioneers would achieve during the 2017 MHSAA Tournament would be considered a bonus and a building block for this season.
Success for coach Monique Brown and her team arrived sooner than most predicted. Edison won the Class C title, the school’s first. And at that time, a repeat, possibly even a three-peat, was in the back of the minds of most who watched Edison’s tournament run.
Not only is Edison favored to repeat as champion in three weeks, there are many who say this team could be the state’s best regardless of class. One glance at the Pioneers’ schedule and results this season, and it’s easy to understand why.
Edison was 17-1 during the regular season with its only loss to Ypsilanti Arbor Prep, the Class B runner-up last season and considered one of the top teams in Class C this winter. The Pioneers moved to 18-1 with their District win over Detroit Cristo Rey on Wednesday.
As an independent, Edison played a variety of teams and some of the best including reigning Class B champion Detroit Country Day and Class A elite Ann Arbor Huron, Saginaw Heritage and Wayne Memorial to name a few.
Brown stopped short of saying this team is better than her team last season, and wisely so. Until this team wins another Class C title, one can rest assured Brown won’t make that claim.
“I’ve been pleased with the growth and maturity they’ve shown,” Brown said. “They’ve grown up. Just the patience they’ve shown has been great. We’ve had some games this season that have gone to overtime, where we’ve been down late and have come back. In these situations last season we would have lost by 12 points or so.”
The most recent game where Edison trailed late before coming back to win played out at Heritage on Feb. 20. The Hawks (20-1), considered top contenders for the Class A title, entered the contest undefeated and coming off an impressive 59-49 victory at Country Day just three days earlier.
Edison trailed Heritage by five points with less than a minute to play and came back to win, 57-55, in double overtime.
“That was the best crowd we’ve ever had to face,” Brown said. “When we played Blissfield in the tournament last season, they brought a lot of fans but they were back, up in the stands. Heritage fans were so close to the floor. They were so close they could touch the players. Their student section was packed.”
Edison has star power in 6-foot-3 junior Rickea Jackson and 5-10 sophomore Gabrielle Elliott, both considered among the top players in their respective classes. But more than that, Edison has exceptional depth.
At the point is freshman sensation Damiya Hagemann. Sophomore Shaulana Wagner, who shared time at the point with Daija Tyson last season, is again sharing time at the point but this time with Hagemann. Tyson, a sophomore, recovered well after suffering a knee injury last season and is more at home on the wing.
Brown has two seniors, Ashley Primas and Oretha Humphries. This is Humphries’ fourth season in the program. And Primas, though not a prolific scorer, is the type of player every good program needs. Whatever is asked of her, she’ll do – she’s the player who will dive for loose balls, set screens and defend players on the wing and in the post.
“Both are quiet, almost like freshmen,” Brown said of her seniors. “Leadership? You get that from Jackson. During a timeout, she’ll get them going.
“Even during practice she’s a leader. At one practice, there was one of our of post players she wasn’t happy with. She texted her and said that she wasn’t working hard enough. I didn’t even know she did that. She’s matured so much. Last year I called her our “sophomore-senior,” but she didn’t know how to lead. Me not throwing that on her this year, she’s stepped into that role.”
Brown has received more consistent play from her reserves, especially since the loss to Arbor Prep on Jan. 11 Brown said her players weren’t as focused for that game as they need to be and got ahead of themselves, perhaps a bit too overconfident.
“That loss helped,” she said. “That’s why we were able to win other games later in the season. We trailed Arbor Prep the whole game and came back to tie it, and then relaxed.”
Brown knew she could count on players like Jackson, Elliott and Hagemann. But throughout the season others have emerged to contribute. Keiarra Jennings played sparingly as a freshman last season and has gradually earned more playing time. It was Jennings’ 3-pointer that sent the game against Heritage into overtime.
“Sometimes she’s too aggressive,” Brown said. “I’ll have to take her out and tell her to slow down. You wouldn’t believe how she’s progressed from last year. She’s a threat coming off the bench. She doesn’t play a whole lot of minutes, maybe 10 in a game, but she can get you seven quick points.”
Edison is a team where every player has accepted her role and is working toward the same goal, from seniors like Primas to freshman like Hagemann.
“It’s not that were better than last year,” Primas said. “We’re more mature. Mentally, we’re tougher this year. It’s the experience. We were in so many games last year where we were down late and would lose.
“There is a difference between last year and now. Last year we didn’t know what to expect. Our mindset this year is to dominate every game. We realize our roles. We have so many players and if one isn’t on their A game, we know we can step up and fill that void.”
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) This season’s Detroit Edison team, off to an 18-1 start as it pursues a second straight Class C title. (Middle) Gabrielle Elliott readies for a pass during a scrimmage. (Photos courtesy of the Detroit Edison 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.)