Zeinstra Finishing 4-Year Byron Center Run Among School's All-Time Greats

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

February 15, 2024

BYRON CENTER – As an incoming freshman four years ago, Lily Zeinstra was immediately thrust into a starting role on the Byron Center varsity girls basketball team.

West MichiganWhile it was an overwhelming experience, Zeinstra embraced the opportunity, and believes the early demands placed on her helped pave the way for what has become an outstanding high school career – and spot among the best in school history.

“My freshman year was scary,” she said. “Just coming in and starting on varsity. And in our first game, I had to guard Jillian Brown from East Grand Rapids, who was a really good player. I feel I was pushed into a big role on our team at a really early age, but I think that has helped me over the last four years to develop into the player I am today.”

Now a senior standout, the 5-foot-11 Zeinstra has been a mainstay in the Bulldogs’ starting line-up throughout while helping lead the program to four years of success.

She recently became the school’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing 1,500 points for her career.

“I have to give credit to my teammates,” Zeinstra said. “Through the years I've been in different scoring positions, but I've always been on a team that has trusted me with the ball in tight game scenarios.

“I’ve been told by my coaches since I was younger that I'm a scorer and they need me to score, and that's been my role so I feel like scoring all those points is what I needed to do to help our team win. That’s the most important part.”

Zeinstra, who committed to Division I Butler University last spring, has been the focal point every season and has enjoyed her role as a team leader. Byron Center (14-4) is a combined 68-14 over her four seasons.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about being a leader and having different roles that I can have on teams,” she said. “Coming in freshman year, my job was to work hard and I was one of the top defenders, so I was guarding the other teams’ best players.

“As years went on, our team lacked numbers so I became more of a scorer, especially last year. I worked on posting up down low and scoring all around the basket, and this year even more trying to further my game and score better. I'm playing college basketball next year, and that’s what they need me to do.”

Zeinstra also had the opportunity to play two years at Byron Center with her older sister, Avery, who plays now at Grand Valley State.

Zienstra, left, puts up a shot against Muskegon.“I feel like I didn’t enjoy it enough when I was in it with her,” Zeinstra said. “But I loved her class so much. There were two other seniors who she played with all four years, and they were big leaders and taught me about the culture here at Byron Center. I really enjoyed playing with them.”

Zeinstra is averaging 25 points per game this season and had a career-high 39 points against Grandville in late December.

First-year Byron Center coach Cam Burns, who replaced longtime program leader Jen Slot, knew all about Zeinstra before being hired.

“I saw her on the AAU circuit and I watched her play for a couple years, and I have friends who spoke highly of her,” Burns said. “When I got the job I wanted to check her out, and I saw her pace and how she plays the game was very special.”

Burns said Zeinstra possesses unwavering confidence and the ability to score several ways.

That mentality has come from countless hours in the gym and a strong work ethic.

“She’s one of the hardest working kids in practice, and she just wants it,” he said. “And she’s a sponge, always looking at different skills and movements to try and get a better look at the rim.

“And it’s about the time and effort she puts into the little details. She makes plays, and I’m not surprised when I see something from her on the court when others are taken back by it. She continues to show why she is so good.”

The adjustment period for Zeinstra was difficult at the onset of this season.

She was getting accustomed to a new coach, as well as a new group of varsity players after the loss of several seniors.

“It was hard at the beginning because I had been running Coach Slot’s plays and offense for three years, and I knew what to expect going into every game and every practice,” Zeinstra said. “When Coach Burns came in, he brought a different vibe and a different culture, and it was the first year I had to get used to playing with new players and a new coach. I was learning things all over again.”

Zeinstra has adapted well to her new surroundings.

“It’s been going pretty good, and we had a couple big wins last week and we are in first place in our conference,” she said. “We should be able to pull another conference championship out – fingers crossed.”

The Bulldogs are chasing their fourth straight conference championship and have a one-game lead entering Friday’s Ottawa-Kent Conference White game against Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. Their only conference loss was against Forest Hills Northern.

“It would be such a great accomplishment to win another one,” Zeinstra said. “We have had this winning culture in our program for so long, and with getting a new coach I was worried we were going to lose some of that. But I really feel like this team is buying into everything that Coach is saying and we are finally putting the pieces together and starting to win some big games.”

After a rocky start, Byron Center has adjusted well to its new coach and made giant strides. The Bulldogs dropped their first two games of the season to East Kentwood and reigning Division 1 champion Rockford, but since have won 13 of their last 15 games.

“We started out 0-2 against two of the top teams in the state, and it was just learning a new system and a new process and feeling each other out,” Burns said. “As weeks have gone by, they are starting to trust in each other and trust me. They’ve started to trust in the process.

“After that first win we got to celebrate that, and it was special. From then on we started rolling, and we’re getting better day by day, continuing to trust in one another.”

The Bulldogs also will seek a third consecutive District crown when the postseason begins in a few weeks. Zeinstra is looking forward to a potential rematch with East Kentwood.

“I want another stab at them, and we like challenges,” Zeinstra said. “We feed off that, so I feel like we have a shot to win (Districts) again.”

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) Byron Center’s Lily Zienstra considers her options during a game against Rockford. (Middle) Zienstra, left, puts up a shot against Muskegon. (Photos courtesy of the Byron Center girls basketball program.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)