In a Class of Their Own: 10 Years Later, Trojan Champions Recall Their Title Run

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Friday, March 20, 2020, 5:45 pm
By: 
Mark Meyer

Ten years ago, at about 2 p.m. on March 20, 2010, the East Lansing girls basketball team was crowned Michigan’s Class A state champion. Pictured above, top row from left: Head coach Rob Smith, Alex Trecha, Gracie Whelan, Natalie Rose Brogan, assistant coach Scott Kindinger. Middle row, from left: Kelsey Deshambo, manager Camilla Simon, Shayna Allen, Libby Meyer, Alex Green, Kaitlin Lapka. Bottom row, from left: Hannah Fitzpatrick, Malika Glover, Zakiya Minifee, Klarissa Bell. Not pictured: Assistant coaches Gary Greider, Jacob Briney, Alexis Mueller and Justin Howenstien.

A decade later, the memories of East Lansing’s first and only girls state basketball championship are fresh in the minds of the four seniors who led the team to a 27-1 record and the Class A state title:

  • Malika Glover, the all-state senior point guard who played the best basketball of her high school career in the semifinal victory over Pershing and the championship win over Renaissance;
  • Klarissa Bell, East Lansing’s first Miss Basketball, who played on two Big Ten championship teams in her four years at Michigan State University;
  • Zakiya Minifee, who played collegiately at Oakland University but still insists the training and teaching she learned in high school made college ball “a breeze”;
  • Hannah Fitzpatrick, the state champion sprinter who went from a reserve role her junior year to becoming the team’s defensive stopper.

All four Trojan teammates spoke at length recently about that magic moment, what it meant then and what it means to them now. All four agreed that the athletes who came before them paved the way for a championship season, not only in performance (the 2008 team finished runnerup to Grosse Pointe North) but also in what they emphasized about conditioning, practice and overall attitude toward the game and their teammates.

The seniors who graduated in 2009, for example — Sami Tucker, Kory Reinhart and Victoria Lipscomb — four-year starters who got within a victory of winning it all ’08 and then suffered their first and only loss in the quarterfinals the following year, demonstrated to Bell what it would take to win a state championship … even though they were unable to do so themselves.

“We were very fortunate to come into that type of leadership, and to learn from them,” Bell said. “When it was our turn, we took all those lessons, talked amongst ourselves and made sure everyone was going to come along with us.”

The underclassmen who would fill out the remainder of the lineup were untested, to a degree, and somewhat unknown. Four players moving up from the junior varsity had shown some ability but had been inconsistent the year before; three reserves from the ’09 team would be counted on to play larger roles; and one freshman needed to learn head coach Rob Smith’s system in a hurry.

The winners pose at the Breslin Center with their championship hardware. (MHSAA photo)

How is this going to work?

Smith had a few doubts himself about where the 2009-10 season might initially be headed.

“[We were] completely unsure of not only would we be good, but would we be able to fill out a starting lineup?,” Smith said. “Hannah Fitzpatrick was a role player who won a state championship in track; she became one of our best defenders. Alex Trecha was an all-state cross country runner who played one year of varsity basketball (as a sophomore) and started for us. That’s the kind of season it was. We didn’t know it at the time but it was such a perfect collection of players, a perfect fit for that situation.”

The Trojans sailed through the CAAC Blue conference with a 12-0 record, comfortably ahead of runnerup Okemos (9-3). Their only setback was a 73-55 loss at home to eventual Class B runner-up Detroit Country Day, and their lowest margin of victory was nine points (56-47 over Waverly, Dec. 4) … until the quarterfinals.

East Lansing had dispatched three familiar opponents in the district tournament at Okemos (Waverly, St. Johns and the host Chieftains) before taking down Mattawan and Holt (for the third time that season) in regional play at Battle Creek.

Up next was a quarterfinal journey to Caledonia where a quick-passing, disciplined Rockford team was waiting for its shot at the Trojans.

(MHSAA photo)

Bell (above), who one day earlier had been named the school’s first-ever Miss Basketball, was whistled for two early fouls and spent the better part of the first half on the bench.

“Not my finest moment,” she said, “but what was great about our team is that I always felt the other girls had my back. I knew if I wasn’t having a good game, my teammates would be there to pick up the slack.”

In critical moments that night, Minifee was there to lift her teammates. Her two free throws with 35 seconds remaining helped the Trojans post a 56-51 victory over an upset-minded Rockford team that had led by eight points late in the third quarter. East Lansing claimed its spot in the finals and had two more hurdles to clear: the Detroit schools of Pershing (20-2) and Renaissance (23-2).

“I still look back at that season as one of the greatest years in basketball that I’ve ever had,” Minifee said. “I tell people this all the time that Coach Smith is probably the best coach I’ve ever had. He is one hundred and ten percent genuine; genuine about the effort he puts into learning the game and about teaching it to us; he is genuine about his care for each of the players, individually, not just as a team and winning, but each player.

“He looks at how you can grow, how you can develop and get better. He’s also looking for your future. What do you want to do? Do you want to play basketball in the future? Do you want to play something else? What are you interested in, career-wise?”

Lingering doubts

Prior to the postseason, surprisingly, not all of Smith’s messaging and tactics had taken hold. He remembers some of the players’ reactions after the district title win over Okemos in which he had called for a slowdown of the offense in order to preserve a fourth-quarter lead.

“When we beat Okemos (for the district title), I remember the kids not being overly happy with stalling out toward the end of the game, how we went into our ‘green’ game and why didn’t we just keep the pedal to the medal?,” Smith said. “The team called a meeting and asked, ‘How can we trust in this process if it never works?’ And we (the coaches) said, ‘What’s the alternative? If you don’t trust in the process, you’re definitely going to lose.’ After that, things really started clicking.”

Glover, in particular, grasped the message and put her game in overdrive. A 5-foot-5 point guard, she averaged 20.5 points per game in the postseason, 4.2 more than during the regular season. She led all scorers with 29 points in a 70-62 win over Pershing, and she netted 25 in the 65-54 title game win over Renaissance.

She was all-state, all-everything and all-in.

Malika Glover (10) leads the East Lansing fast break against Renaissance in the 2010 Class A state championship game at the Breslin Center. (MHSAA photo)

“Getting so close and not making it [in previous seasons], at this point we knew all the little things that could lead you to fail,” Glover said. “We knew we had to put it all on the line. We had nothing else to lose. That’s what we did. Every single person stepped up and did what had to be done.”

And when it came time for Smith to slow the tempo in the fourth quarter of the championship game against Renaissance, Glover knew the ‘green game’ call was the right one. Trailing by nine with under three minutes to play, Renaissance was forced to foul, and the Trojans responded by making 10 straight free throws – six by Bell, four by Glover.

Playing her usual stellar defense, Fitzpatrick contributed two steals, three rebounds and a timely basket with 1:02 left in the third quarter that put the Trojans ahead 42-39 – and lifted the Trojan student cheering section out of its seats and to the top of its lungs.

“Yeah, it was crazy loud,” Fitzpatrick said. “For me, it was a surreal feeling. To be on a team like that as a senior, a starter …”

Fitzpatrick and Lipscomb had both been major contributors to the East Lansing track and field championship in June 2009, but for Fitzpatrick the basketball title was something she’ll always remember.

“I think a lot of people thought we had lost our chance, with so many great players having graduated the year before,” Fitzpatrick said. “Instead of letting that get to us, I think we used that as fuel, and it led us to have a great season.”

Klarissa Bell (right) and Hannah Fitzpatrick celebrate after East Lansing defeats Renaissance 65-54 to win the Class A state championship on March 20, 2010. (MHSAA photo)

We’re in this together

The focus on commitment and becoming a team, Fitzpatrick said, evolved into a family atmosphere and led to team dinners, hanging out outside of practice, having conversations at school, and being connected not just through basketball.

“Because if we had not had that connection and that feeling about one another, we would not have gotten that far,” she said. “If you looked at us skill-wise, we were probably not the team to win the state title.”

A state title had been on the four seniors’ to-do list since their undefeated season in seventh grade at MacDonald Middle School. Glover knew they couldn’t go it alone.

“We tried our best to show everyone on the team that their role was important, whether they were playing a lot of minutes or not,” Glover said. “We wanted to make sure everyone on the team knew they were appreciated. And how much we cared and we needed them. And I really think that was the difference.”

Smith saw what the state championship meant to his players immediately after the final horn had sounded.

“I remember the sheer joy,” Smith said. “There was a picture of Klarissa jumping into someone’s arms, and the expression on her face was so joyful. I’ll never forget that.”

All for No. 1 — at last! (MHSAA photo)

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