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Falcons continue to honor memory of ‘Coach Z,’ clinch 5th straight TVC title; ‘I know he’s proud of them right now’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, February 22, 2020, 2:15 am

FRANKENMUTH — You know who’d be loving this? 

Yup. You’re dang right. Coach Z would be so stinking proud.

If the Freeland girls basketball program was going to find a way to best honor the memory of their longtime coach, Tom Zolinski — ‘Coach Z’ or just ‘Z’ to most — who passed away just 11 days before this year’s opener, it would be exactly like this.

A scrappy team, one that started 2-3, before ripping off wins in 12 of 13 games, coming together to win the program’s fifth straight divisional title in the Tri-Valley Conference — all while being completely underrated and underappreciated.

Freeland’s come-from-behind, 43-39 road win over Frankenmuth on Friday clinched the Tri-Valley Conference East Division title, the ninth divisional crown in the 13 seasons since Zolinski took over on the bench. 

“It feels pretty dang good, if I do say so. First by ourselves now,” said Ferris State-bound senior Kadyn Blanchard, who had 21 points and eight rebounds in the win. 

“We just have so much heart. I couldn’t ask for a better team. They just give it all on the floor. They’re diving for loose balls, helping each other up when someone’s down, picking each other up. It’s just, it’s a great atmosphere.”

The doubleheader for the Eagles was a Coaches for Cancer fundraiser event, making the evening just that much more intense — especially when the Frankenmuth folks made sure to honor Zolinski’s memory before the start of the boys game. 

He’s never far from the minds of the Freeland family, though.

Just 55, Zolinski passed away on Nov. 21, 2019, less than two weeks from the Falcons opening the season at home against Midland Dow. He was discovered at home in his bed, after he failed to show up to get on the bus to travel to a scrimmage.

In his absence, assistant Matt Hirschenberger was thrust into the head coaching role, but almost had no idea how to begin to heal the gaping hole in the Falcons’ hearts.

“To say that we miss Tom, Coach Z, would be a big misstatement. We miss him so much. I got some advice. Tom used to say ‘Things happen for a reason.’ He always used to tell us that,” Hirschenberger said. “I talked to one other guy, and he told me he’d gone through some things, and I needed just a frame of mind, like ‘How do I go into something like this?’ We chose that we’re going to celebrate Coach Z’s life. So what we’re doing, we’re free to talk about him in practice. We’ve got so many memories. Tom was such a bigger than life guy, it’s still hard for us to even realize he’s gone. There’s been so many times this season where I just want to call him and share things with him. It happens all the time. That’s where, when these guys come together and do it like that — he would be proud of them, just for coming out on the court. I know he’s proud of them right now.”

The Falcons (14-4, 12-1 TVC East) did struggle at the beginning of the season, both emotionally, and in their play.

They lost to opener against Dow, 42-26, then edged Bay City Western by two, 33-31. Standish-Sterling opened their league season by handing them a 45-36 loss, followed by a one-point win over Birch Run, 42-41, and a two-point loss to Saginaw Valley League Red contender Bay City John Glenn, 42-40.

Some of that was to be expected.

Despite the fact that the Falcons were coming off an appearance in the state title game — one of three final four appearances under Zolinski, to go with 11 district titles and five regional crowns — they returned just one starter (Blanchard), and just two players (Blanchard and Peyton Hansen) who saw more than three minutes of action in the final two games of the postseason run.

That alone makes this year’s success so amazing. 

Since the Dec. 18 loss to John Glenn, the Falcons have lost just once — a 40-36 setback against two-time defending champ Saginaw Heritage on Feb. 4 that snapped an eight-game win streak. 

“I’m going to be honest with you: I am (surprised). I think everybody would say where they started off, but they’ve got some good players, right? But they just didn’t have experience. So that kind of showed early on,” Hirschenberger said. “We knew those girls were good players, but how they come together like they do, it’s an amazing thing to watch. … They’re excited, they’re having fun. It’s not just the players on the floor, it goes for every player that’s on the bench. And it’s in practice. I mean, I’ve got girls that can’t play (with injuries), and they’re coming to every single practice. They amaze me, too. The whole team.”

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some emotional bumps in the road. 

“I honestly don’t know how we did it. At the beginning of the season, we talked a lot, had a lot of meetings, because of what happened. Our main goal was to come together as a team, and just be there for each other, and I think that we accomplished that. Just the heart that we have is what’s getting us through, pushing us through,” Blanchard said. “It was hard. Because you try to go into every game, and try to put what happened behind you, but it’s always there. It’s surrounding us. I think just us wanting to be there for each other — and actually being there for each other, not just saying it — really helped us get through it.”

Then there was the taks of replacing the four departed starters — Autumn Kloha, Lily Beyer, Alyssa Argyle and Taylor Bakos —  who’d combined to average 37.8 points (of Freeland’s 59.1) per game a year ago. Aside from Blanchard’s 14.6 points per game, the other four starters this year — Mae Barringer, Hansen, Hannah Niederquell and Whitney Farrell — combined to average 4.5 points per game a season ago.

“To be honest, I didn’t think we would meet the same expectations that we were at last year, but this team has shown me so much. They want it so bad. They just have the heart. I wouldn’t say that we’re better than last year — we’re a different team, to be at the same level. We don’t have the skill (of the graduated players) anymore, but we have the heart,” Blanchard said, admitting she’s grown into a new role as a senior. “At the beginning of the season, I had to take on a little bit different role, a little bit more leadership role. Last year, I was the leading scorer, but this year I have to be the leader mentally, bringing them together. I think I’ve gotten a lot better with that.”

The Falcons certainly needed both her scoring prowess and her leadership when they went into the locker room at the half of Friday’s game, trailing 30-17. 

“I go into the locker room, and it’s tough to face your team — it’s tough to face your team when you’re down 13 points. You’ve got a team out there in Frankenmuth who’s an outstanding team — they hit six 3-pointers, and they may have been 6-for-6 — and then to talk to them, and have their full attention, and have them come out and focus on what we could do,” Hirschenberger marveled. “It took them until a minute or two left to even get the lead. It’s a testament to them that they stayed in there like that.”

The Falcons ripped off the first seven points of the second half to cut the deficit down to six, then got it to five on Hansen’s 3-pointer with 3:40 left in the third. Frankenmuth stretched it back to seven points, and took a 36-31 lead into the fourth, but scored just three points in the final eight minutes — and nine in the entire second half. 

Hansen’s 3 with 5:40 left made it a four-point game at 38-34, then Blanchard hit a 3 with 3:03 left to make it just a one-point game, 39-38. She’d set up Barringer on the wing for the go-ahead 3 with 1:35 left — Freeland’s first lead of the game — and close the scoring out with two more free throws. 

Blanchard finished with 21 points and eight rebounds, while Hansen had eight points and four assists. 

Lexi Boyke led Frankenmuth with 13 points, six rebounds and three assists, while Kelynn Kujat and Zoey Persails had eight points each. 

“We came in here, and my team — I give so much credit to them, they got me the ball so well, and we were moving it around, being patient,” Blanchard said. “I give all the credit to my teammates; they found me, so I could make the shots.”

After home games against Ogemaw Heights and Essexville Garber, the Falcons will start the postseason with a district game against Midland Bullock Creek at Carrollton on March 4. Eventually, this emotional run will come to an end — wherever it does.

“I’d like to say I’m pretty confident. I don’t want to say too much, but we’ve been playing really well together, and we’re coming together as a team. We know each others’ cues now,” said Blanchard, one of the team’s eight seniors. “You always hope to go as far as you can in the tournament and everything. But I just hope — eventually I’m going to have my last game as a senior, and I just hope to be out there with my teammates, having a good time. Just being out there with them is going to be the best. …  (I love) just being out there with my teammates, and the memories we create, because I’m never going to forget this. It’s just a great experience to have.” 

Until that day comes, every game will start the same way, by remembering Coach Z. 

“This year, with the loss of Z, every time we pray before games,” Blanchard said, “we get in a circle, and I’m always thinking … I always just want to go ‘He’d be proud of you, no matter what.’ Something like that.”

Yeah, he’d be proud. No doubt about it.