Young Grass Lake Grows Into Contender

March 2, 2019

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

GRASS LAKE – Some coaches go a whole career without ever knocking off a No. 1-ranked team.

The Grass Lake Warriors and head coach Andrea Cabana have done it twice in a month.

“And, we are just babies,” Cabana said of her youthful squad. “I think it really boosts our confidence. It gives us an idea of what we are capable of.”

The Warriors, who have been sneaking higher and higher into The Associated Press Division 3 rankings all season, are capable of just about anything with the MHSAA Tournament beginning this week. They have won 16 consecutive games since a December loss to Division 3 No. 1 Michigan Center. Included in that streak is two wins over a solid 14-5 Manchester squad, a rematch win over Michigan Center on Feb. 1 and a 64-53 win over Division 4’s No. 1 Adrian Lenawee Christian last week.

“It’s exciting,” said Cabana. “We are playing very well right now.”

On Thursday, the Warriors took care of business quickly, racing out to a 31-2 lead over Addison in a game that would clinch the Cascades Conference outright championship. Grass Lake won 64-36 to put the lid on a 19-1 regular season.

Success is certainly nothing new for Grass Lake. But this season’s rise to 19-1 can be considered somewhat of a surprise since the team, coming off an 18-5 season, had just one player returning with a lot of high school basketball experience – sophomore Abrie Cabana. She’s surrounded by two freshmen, a fellow sophomore and a junior.

“We’re not babies at this time of the year,” Coach Cabana said. “We’ve grown up.”

The Warriors have done it with a solid combination of lock-down defense and a high-powered offense. They average 56.4 points a game and allow just 29.6 a contest. The defense has allowed 20 or fewer points in a game seven times this season, and one opponent didn’t reach double figures. On the other end of the court, the Warriors have 11 games scoring above 60 points.

Lenawee Christian won the Class D championship a year ago and has been the No. 1-ranked team in Division 4 most of the season. The Cougars lost to Michigan Center to start the season and Grass Lake last week for their only two losses. Head coach Jamie Salenbien said Grass Lake has all of the pieces to make a long tournament run of its own this year.

“They have a high basketball I.Q.,” Salenbien said. “They are balanced with kids who can shoot it deep, and they get to the basket. They are well-coached and have a lot of weapons.”

Cabana called that win a total team effort.

“Lenawee Christian is a great team,” she said. “They have a handful of great players. We knew it was going to take a great effort. We went in real focused, and things went our way in the end.”

Abrie Cabana, the 5-foot-10 daughter of Coach Cabana, leads the team in scoring and most statistical categories. Although just a sophomore, she verbally committed to play college basketball at Grand Valley State University last fall. She had other offers, including from the Division I level, but chose the Division II Lakers over them all.

“She’s probably our vocal leader,” Cabana said of her daughter. “She’s played a ton of travel ball. She’s the most experienced high school player on the team.”

Her backcourt running mate, Lexus Bargesser, is only a freshman but already plays at a high level.

“She’s almost identical to Abrie,” Cabana said. “She’s a little smaller, but she’s quick and gets to the hole quick. She’s a very sound player. We are very strong at the guard position. They are both strong outside the 3-point line and inside. They are hard to handle.”

Freshman Gabrielle Lutchka (6-0) is also an imposing figure at both ends of the court for Grass Lake.

“She’s been our game changer,” Cabana said. “She handles the other team’s big player. When she is playing well, we play well.”

In the win over Lenawee Christian, Lutchka scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds. She also drew the primary responsibility of guarding LCS’s Bree Salebien, the reigning AP Class D Player of the Year.

Other Warriors, such as Amber Boomer, Faith Patania and Lauren Pongracz, play big roles as well.

“They do a real nice job of playing to their roles, playing to their strengths,” Cabana said.

While young, Cabana said, the girls already have played a lot of basketball.

“A lot of our girls play travel ball,” Cabana said. “They are very experienced players. They’ve played a lot of basketball.”

Cabana is from the Jackson area but has lived in the Grass Lake district for about 20 years. She got her start coaching her oldest daughter – now a sophomore on the Spring Arbor University team – when she was in the third grade. The Warriors are 55-13 during her tenure, and the future keeps looking brighter.

“There was an opening in the middle school, and I coached that for three years,” Cabana said. “Then there was an opening as the JV head coach and I did that for two years, and this is my third year with the varsity.”

Grass Lake will open District play with Lenawee County Athletic Association champion Brooklyn Columbia Central. Looming on the other side of the Napoleon bracket is the likes of Michigan Center and Manchester.

“This time of the year,” Cabana said, “nothing is easy.”

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) Grass Lake’s Abrie Cabana pushes the ball upcourt against Manchester this season. (Middle) Teammate Lexus Bargesser looks for an opening. (Photos courtesy of the Grass Lake girls basketball program.)

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.)