Westwood Sets Sights on Past Heights

December 20, 2018

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ISHPEMING – The Westwood Patriots do not have a senior on their girls basketball roster and only two players stand as tall as 5-foot-9.

But don’t overlook this team.

Five juniors who played extensively a year ago provide the leadership and experience, while two sophomores and a promising freshman show excellent potential in the challenging Mid-Peninsula Conference. And they play for a team that is steeped in tradition and success, including a 2003 Class C championship.

Kurt Corcoran, a former Westwood cager, is in his seventh season as head coach. His assistant coach is Irv Dieterle, who is second in the Upper Peninsula among boys basketball coaches with 555 wins. Corcoran played for Dieterle in the 1990s.

“Irv is one of my very best friends in life now,” said Corcoran. “At times I was so angry and frustrated with him as a teenage boy. Now we can sit over a cup of coffee and laugh and laugh and laugh.

“I have the best assistant coach possibly in the nation. I feel very privileged to have him as a friend, assistant and mentor.”

Dieterle provides suggestions at halftime or when asked on the bench. “I would be crazy not to heed his advice,” said Corcoran, who is in charge of this team.

With the lack of size, the Patriots use solid defense and rely heavily on the shooting skills of junior Madi Koski, a three-year starter who was all-conference and All-U.P. as a freshman. In their most recent game, Dec. 18, Koski scored 21 points and hit two 3-point baskets to help subdue Gladstone 50-32.

“Madi is a stone-cold killer when it comes to scoring,” said Corcoran. “I’ll put her shot up against anybody (in high school).”

Her sister Jillian is a freshman with outstanding promise playing like most freshmen riding the roller coaster of success and mis-adventures. She did not score against Gladstone but had 17 points against archrival Ishpeming on Dec. 10.

“They are not the same player. Jillian will sacrifice her body, but Madi is a little more reserved diving into those (piles of) bodies,” said Corcoran. “(Jillian) is a real good ball handler, probably one of the best I’ve seen, but she needs to get stronger and catch up to the speed of the game.”

Jillian Koski has been a point guard since forever but is now at shooting guard, with her sister at the point. “(Jillian) is not on anybody’s radar yet (but) she is catching up with the speed of the game. That takes at least 10 games,” said Corcoran. “She lets the game come to her. Madi has to score. Madi facilitates the game. She wears many hats (scoring, passing, defending).”

He said the young sisters “really have just one goal in common, and that is to win.”

Corcoran is trying to restore Westwood to the level of long-ago years when the Patriots were always among the Upper Peninsula’s elite teams under veteran coach Tom Hammar (nearly 400 career wins) and with such standouts as Sarah Stream and Megan Manninen, who both played in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for Michigan Tech and Lake Superior State, respectively. Jessica Racine also played at Tech, and Chelsea Wealton was another standout.

Two years ago, the Patriots beat unbeaten Norway and all-stater Jordan Kraemer, and last year they beat unbeaten neighbor Negaunee in the District opener. Negaunee and Westwood, two of the best teams in the peninsula this season, will collide in the tourney opener in March after two regular-season league matchups.

“With the guard play we have now and in the future, our goals are set high,” said Corcoran. “But we have to get past that first game to even get out of Districts. I’d be lying if I didn’t say we have our sights set on making a run downstate. They have paid their dues; they want a state championship. That is not a secret, but that is also Negaunee’s goal and West Iron’s goal. That is everyone’s goal.”

Reaching that height would be a big change from where the Patriots were a couple of years ago. The Pats were 5-15 when Madi Koski and fellow junior standout Tessa Leece were in eighth grade.

“As freshmen, they came to a struggling program that had been down in the dumps. They were given the keys to the Cadillac as young teenagers and they really were not ready,” said Corcoran.

But the two frosh made an immediate impact and Corcoran said “from that moment forward the program took a turn for the better. They got to 12 wins and beat 18-0 Norway. (Madi Koski and Leece) are the lead dogs and are really comfortable in their lead roles. They really stepped into a big hole in the program.”

He said his junior aces spend 365 days a year in the gym, and that hard work is catching on with their teammates, such as junior Karlie Patron and sophomore Ellie Miller.

Leece’s sister Mallory is a freshman on the school’s junior varsity. With low numbers (eight varsity players, nine jayvees), the younger Leece stayed with the jayvees but could join the varsity for the postseason.

Corcoran said he is seeing many long-time Westwood fans returning to the gym as they hear about the program’s revival. “We’re turning heads a little bit and people are starting to notice,” he said, admitting that also generates pressure from parents, fans and administrators.

He pointed out the Westwood school district was born in 1974 through a consolidation that brought in students from Champion, National Mine and Michigamme. “Westwood is not a town,” he said of the area west of Ishpeming that covers about 700 square miles of woodlands and water and consists of multiple generational Westwood school families.

With just 17 girls in the basketball program, Corcoran was asked about the future of girls basketball, which in the U.P. has just seven freshmen teams.

He said youth travel programs have made a big impact in recent years – and goals can become misplaced on winning tournaments instead of how many players enjoy the sport enough to continue on into high school.

“They play little (weekend) tournaments and everybody has fun, they have pizza parties at their hotel. Then they get to the high school level and coaches hold you accountable," Corcoran said. "We practice seven days a week, there are no pizza parties, no trophies. They’re in ninth grade and they already have a seven-year career and they’re not having fun anymore.” 

“Basketball is a way of life up here and we take it seriously. With that comes a lot of hard work, too.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Westwood's Tessa Leece (2) drives to the basket while Ishpeming's Emma Poirier defends last week. (Middle) Poirier (2) is pressured by Westwood's Jillian Koski as she heads to the basket. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)

Few in Number, Tecumseh Pursuing Sizable Success with Zajacs Setting Pace

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)