The following is a retrospective look at the 2012-13 Saline Lady Hornets’ championship basketball season. An unnamed media member wrote it and wants to share it with the Saline Post and the Saline Reporter for possible inclusion. The author sat down with Coach Waltz, recapped the season, and shares many quotes throughout the piece. The article gives an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the ups and downs of the season, how the team came together, and what the future holds for Saline Women’s Basketball.
Chasing a Ghost
The loss haunted the Hornets the entire offseason. In the District Final, the returners remember feeling incomplete and very unsatisfied. The scoreboard read 38-26 Bedford as members of the Kicking Mules celebrated at Saline High School. It was March of 2012 and Bedford had just defeated the Lady Hornets in the District Final in Coach Waltz’s first season at the helm. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the seniors that year. They knew that it was the last high school game they would ever play and the memories of that disappointment would linger for a long time.
The 2012-13 Lady Hornets had different ideas. The entire offseason was dedicated to getting right back to that moment, right back to the district final. This time, however, they were going to finish things the right way. “The amount of preparation and work that the girls put forth in the summer was outstanding. You could tell from the very beginning that they were a hungry team. They had a chip on their shoulders in a lot of ways.” Coach Waltz said. Heading into the season with six seniors who had all played for Coach Waltz at one point in time (four of them were entering their third year with Waltz as they played for him sophomore year on JV), combined with five juniors and four sophomores, the Hornets entered the fall with high expectations for themselves, even if others saw them as young and inexperienced. “That was the one misconception about us from the beginning,” Waltz said, “We had strong leadership from our seniors and even though we had young players contributing, our seniors weren’t going to let this be a rebuilding year. We didn’t mind being the underdog though, that was a role we relished.”
The Hornets would find out that youth was a good thing to have in their very first game of the season against a senior-laden Macomb Lutheran North team. Trailing most of the game, sophomore Taylor Mulder hit three straight jump shots to bring the Hornets back into contention. Then, trailing by four in the fourth quarter, the game turned on a big basket by Caitlin Ellis and a steal and dish by Melissa Needham to Emily Reyst. Once tied and in overtime, sophomore Jess Barnes took a pass from sophomore Amanda Zylstra and hit a turnaround baby hook inside the lane to give the Hornets the lead with under a minute to play. The Hornets held on for a 42-39 overtime win. “That win showed us a lot of things. It showed that we were never out of a game and that at any given time, you never know who will step up and make a big play. That was an outstanding first bucket to start Jess Barnes’ career,” Waltz said.
Once the calendar hit 2013, the Hornets found themselves with a record of 4-3. They defeated Milan, Adrian, and Monroe CC, with juniors Amelia Wittig, Sam Blovits, and Sarah Noonan playing well in the Milan and Adrian games, but dropped games against Canton, Bedford, and Ypsilanti.
Big Win vs. SMCC
The Monroe CC victory was an incredible team effort as the Hornets were playing without seniors Randi Bennett (who would miss the entire season with a torn ACL) and Melissa Needham as well as without sophomore Taylor Mulder. They responded by getting great minutes from senior Melanie Moeller, junior Alana Hollis (who played all 32 minutes), and sophomores Sam Bruley and one-game call up Alyssa Heren. Senior Emily Reyst led the way with a career-high 13 points. “We definitely had to piece it together a little bit in that game but some of our role players played absolutely great. Emily played her best game of the season and so did Alana. We don’t win without Melanie’s seven fourth-quarter points though. She was great. Those three players put us on their backs and refused to lose.”
The Lady Hornets found out, however, that wins weren’t going to come easy. Despite the positivity that the season started with, they dropped to 4-5 in early January after losing two games, one each to Ann Arbor Huron and state semi-finalist Dexter in a game that was played at Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center. There was certainly no shame in losing to those state-contending clubs but the Hornets knew that they would have to perform better in the upcoming games if they were going to see their season shape up how they had planned.
An Inspiring Win Against a Rival
The next game came against a bitter rival and a team that Saline hadn’t defeated in over five years. “We told the girls the entire week that it had been since 2008 that our program had defeated Ann Arbor Pioneer. We were sort of ‘all-in’ that week. We were coming off of four straight losses and we sort of knew that we could get back on track if we could come away with a victory in Ann Arbor.” Waltz said. Though the game ended as a 39-38 win, Saline led comfortably for much of the way. They finally ended the drought against Pioneer behind double figures scoring from seniors Melissa Needham, Caitlin Ellis, and Amanda Zylstra. Back to .500, the Hornets could exhale a bit and get back to playing quality basketball.
That’s exactly what they did. Including the Pioneer win, the team won six of its next seven games with their only loss coming to state champion Manchester. Junior Sam Coon, a transfer student from Milan became eligible at this time and the team hit its stride. During this stretch, the Hornets defeated Ann Arbor Skyline, Monroe, Bedford, Ann Arbor Pioneer for the second time, and Lincoln.
“There were so many big performances during this run in the middle of the year,” Waltz said, “Tori MacNeil played great against Skyline, Sam Coon had 13 points at Bedford, and Amanda Zylstra hit a 3 with under a minute left against Lincoln that gave us a one-point lead late. The team really was gelling nicely during this portion of the season.”
Ellis and Needham Take It Up a Notich or Three
Two of the other main reasons that the Hornets were successful during this stretch was the dominating performances put forth by Caitlin Ellis and Melissa Needham. Caitlin tore through the SEC with a 21 point, 16 rebound performance against Pioneer in the second game, and a 19 point, 18 rebound performance against Lincoln. Melissa used her overall playmaking ability to record an 11 point, 6 rebound, 3 assist game against Monroe and a 9 point, 5 steal, 3 assist game against Pioneer. At 10-6 overall and in a tie for second place in the SEC Red, the Hornets had achieved double-digit victories for the second straight season and had gained some respect winning in some tough venues. “Winning in Bedford was a great accomplishment because it’s such a tough place to play. They are a well-coached, discipline team, and we knew that we would have to play close to perfect to grab a victory there.”
The good vibes were short lived, however, at least for the next two games. The Hornets lost on a buzzer beater at home to Ann Arbor Skyline and then dropped a hard fought game at Ann Arbor Huron, 41-35, a game that they led most of the way. “Our morale was low after Skyline hit that shot, there’s no doubt about that. But what that loss did was refocus us.” Waltz said. He pointed to something that one of his assistants, Brian Buchanan, said to the team after the game.
“Brian basically said, ‘Look, you can dwell on this game or you can get better because of it.’ He was right. We all had to turn the page and realize what put us in that position. That loss, as crazy as it sounds, really did help us become a better team.”
Victory Wrapped in a Loss
That much was evident in the next game against state power Ann Arbor Huron. The Hornets ended up losing by six but it was an effort that the coaching staff thought was their best of the season. “Huron is outstanding. We hadn’t played a game within 20 of them in my two years coaching. We had our chances, one shot to win in the last thirty seconds of that game. One play here or there and we win, simple as that.” Waltz said. Despite the loss, the Hornets knew that they had turned a corner. Assistant Coach Adam Jurasek said as much in the locker room upon returning from Huron. “He said that there was something special about to happen to our team. I think we all sensed that but I think the girls needed to hear that. They had come a very long way up to that point but we all felt that the best was yet to come. Our season was entering playoff-time and our team had to understand that if they played like they did against Huron, we could do damage in the postseason.”
The Storybook Ending
What happened next is the stuff of storybooks. Saline defeated Monroe 45-20 on senior night in which all five active seniors (Ellis, Needham, Reyst, Moeller, MacNeil) scored at least one point. Then, on teacher appreciation night and the last regular season game, they battled Ypsilanti in a rematch from their loss back in December. Down by as many as seven in the fourth quarter, the Hornets battled back and ended up tying the game with under a minute to play. Saline was able to whittle the clock away to 9.4 seconds before calling timeout to set up the final shot. “It was a play that Coach Jurasek drew up before the game started. We were going to try to feed our best pure shooter, Amanda Zylstra, and get the ball in her hands. The rest was great execution by Emily Reyst, a great screen by Barnes, and then of course, an incredible shot by Amanda.” As the ball went through the net as the buzzer sounded, the gym was sent into pure pandemonium. The team mobbed Amanda in celebration at half court and the Hornets escaped with a 51-48 victory. At 12-8 overall and 7-5 in the SEC, it was time for the playoffs.
Saline opened in the district semi-finals, playing the tournament at Monroe against Lincoln. Saline defeated Lincoln in dramatic fashion earlier in the season, 51-48, but knew that the second test would be even tougher. After all, Lincoln entered the game with a 13-7 record and had at least three future college players on their roster. Tournament time, however, was the time that the Lady Hornets claimed as ‘their time’. After Saline shot out to a double-digit lead, the Railsplitters cut the deficit to six in the fourth quarter. Saline battled back, however, and ended up icing the game away with free throws capturing a 51-37 victory. It was the poise and leadership of Ellis (13 points, 17 rebounds) and Needham (15 points, 5 rebounds) that once again carried the Hornets to victory and to another trip to the District Finals.
When the Hornets gathered in the film room before the first game of the season, Coach Waltz put a picture of the scoreboard from last year’s finals on the screen. 38-26 Bedford. When Saline vowed to return to the District Finals, little did they know that they would be facing the exact same opponent. Temperance Bedford would also be returning to the championship game still stinging from their home loss to Saline in late January. Sporting a 16-6 record, Bedford was the favorite to win the tournament, like they did the year before, and only needed to get by Saline to go to their second straight regional. They found out early that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“This game had a lot of hype,” Coach Waltz explained, “We knew that we had to play our game and stay calm if we were going to win. We had a phrase throughout the year, ‘calm team wins’ and we lived by that in this game. We worked so hard our entire offseason and regular season for this game. The girls wanted it very badly and the coaches wanted to see them get it done.”
In a back-and-forth contest that saw several lead changes throughout the first half, the two teams went into halftime tied at 25. What Waltz described as one of his favorite sequences all season took place in the second quarter when Amanda Zylstra nailed a 3-pointer to give the Hornets a two-point lead, followed by a Bedford three, and then less than 15 seconds later, an Alana Hollis three to give the Hornets the two-point lead back again. Waltz pointed to that sequence as a big difference maker. “I think that that particular 45 seconds showed Bedford that we weren’t going away. It was sort of like a boxing match where we punched them, they punched us back, but we came back even harder. That showed mental toughness and I think after that, we knew that were going to take control.”
And take control they did. Led by Amanda Zylstra’s four three-pointers and Emily Reyst’s heady play, the Hornets took a fourth quarter lead, ran out several minutes of clock, iced it on free throws, and won 47-41. Again, the team rushed the court in celebration. The Hornets were District Champions and had accomplished the major goal that they set out to accomplish before the season started. They had avenged last year’s loss and disappointment. They finished it the right way this time. They became champions.
On to Regionals
The excitement did not end there. With a trip to the MHSAA Sweet Sixteen on the line, the Hornets faced off with Brownstown Woodhaven at home in the Regional Semi-Finals. With a 21-3 record entering the contest, Woodhaven was the clear favorite heading into the matchup. That didn’t faze Saline. “We knew we could play with them. We knew we had the ability and we were playing well enough. That was the best part about this tournament run was that the coaches didn’t have to persuade the players that we belonged. The players weren’t satisfied with a district title. They knew that they belonged and they wanted more than that,” Coach Waltz said. In yet another back and forth contest, and one that packed the Saline stands with an impressive student section, Saline found themselves in front 24-20 at halftime.
“We played a very disciplined game against Woodhaven. They like to get out and run and shoot and we were successful playing our game, even in the second half when it started to open up.”
And things did open up after the intermission. After several lead changes, the Hornets were up 48-43 midway through the fourth quarter. Then, after a couple of big buckets by Woodhaven to tie it, the Hornets missed a shot to win it in regulation. In overtime, the back and forth nature of the game continued until the Hornets found themselves down by 1 with 26 seconds to go. Another opportunity to win it bounced off the rim and Woodhaven secured the rebound and was fouled. After making just one of the two foul shots, Saline and yet another chance to tie or take the lead but turned it over with just over four seconds to play. Despite being down two points without possession, Sam Coon managed a steal near half court off of the inbounds play and heaved a desperation three at the buzzer to win the game. It missed long. The game ended in overtime and Woodhaven moved on, 60-58. The season, played to the very last second of the last game, was over.
It was a remarkable season for the Lady Hornets and certainly one that won’t be remembered by just the last game. They finished with a 14-9 overall record, third in the SEC, won a District Championship, and came within two points in overtime of moving on to a Regional Final. In the individual honors category, Melissa Needham and Caitlin Ellis took home First Team All-SEC honors and Amanda Zylstra was All-SEC Honorable Mention. Emily Reyst was the SEC Sportsmanship Award winner and Tori MacNeil won the Woodie Merchant Award for perseverance and positive team play. In the voted-by-teammates awards, Caitlin Ellis and Melissa Needham shared MVP honors; Ellis also won Offensive Player of the Year. Needham and Alana Hollis shared Defensive Player of the Year, Zylstra won Rookie of the Year, Melanie Moeller won Most Improved, and Amelia Wittig won the Lunch Pail Award given to the hardest worker in practice. Last but certainly not least; Randi Bennett was given her own award named the ‘Randi Bennett Award for Leadership through Adversity’. Battling through a season ending injury, Randi continued to support her teammates and was a positive role model and leader on the bench for the team. Coach Waltz explained, “She had opportunities where she could have looked inward and felt sorry for herself but instead she used all of that energy and time and put it towards making our team better in every way that she could. She was a huge, unsung difference maker for us this season.”
When asked to reflect upon the entire 2012-13 season, Coach Waltz gathered his thoughts and began to explain: “It was an absolute pleasure to coach these kids and I want to thank them for everything they’ve given me.” Waltz said, “From day one, even when many people doubted their ability to succeed, they promised themselves that they wanted to improve every day and win a championship. That’s what they did. We are very fortunate. Many teams say they want to do those things but few actually get the chance to see it happen. As coaches, we say a lot of things in the heat of the moment, but when I look back at this season, and really reflect on it, and I’ve had time to do so, I just want to reiterate how proud I am of those kids and how much I love them.”
The Saline Women’s Basketball Team will move forward as they say goodbye to six wonderful seniors. Melissa Needham, Caitlin Ellis, Emily Reyst, Tori MacNeil, Melanie Moeller, and Randi Bennett will be missed greatly. The future looks very bright, however. “We will miss those seniors, no doubt. They did things the right way. They were unselfish, always putting the team first before themselves. That’s so important.” Waltz said, “We are very excited about the future too. The returners have seen first-hand the amount of work it takes to be successful. We have some great players coming along at the JV and Freshmen levels and we can’t wait to get started this summer. We want to create new memories, go back-to-back in districts, and advance even further in the state tournament.”
Waltz noted that while spring workouts for the 2013-14 Saline Hornets Varsity team will begin in mid-to-late April, the summer time is the time for the younger players to shine. Saline Community Education and the Saline Women’s Basketball program will put on all-new summer camps for future girls basketball stars in grades 2-9. The camps will be held from June 17 until June 27 and runs on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays for grades 2-8. The 2nd-4th grade camp will run from 8:30am-10:00am on those days, 5th-6th grade from 10:15am-11:45am, and the 7th-8th grade camp from 12:00pm-1:30pm all at Saline High School. The incoming freshmen basketball players have their own camp that runs Monday-Friday, June 17-21 from 9:00am-11:00am. This camp concludes on Friday with the ‘Futures Game’, a real exhibition game played between two teams of non-varsity sophomores and freshmen. Parents are welcomed to attend! Registration for these camps will be made available through Saline Community Education starting on April 15.
Tran Longmoore is a veteran community journalist. He is founder and owner of TheSalinePost.com. He is co-publisher of The Saline Post weekly newspaper. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 734-272-6294.