ROCK REVIVAL: Salem tasting success at doubters’ expense
After finishing its summer 2022 slate of games with a 20-3 record, Salem’s girls basketball team didn’t necessarily need added motivation heading into the 2022-23 season.
But that’s exactly what the Rocks received at the Kensington Lakes Activities Association pre-season media event in November.
“We only lost one player to graduation from last year’s team, but we were picked fifth (in the six-team KLAA West Division) in the pre-season coaches’ poll,” recounted Salem’s second-year head coach Rod Wells. “Honestly, I thought it was a little disrespectful and when I told the girls, they weren’t too happy about it. So, yeah, that gave us a little extra motivation.
“I heard, too, the past couple of years coaches weren’t even watching our film before they played us because they were expecting to win easily. Well, they’re watching our film now.”
Heading into their Feb. 3 showdown against Canton, the Rocks sit atop the West Division with an 8-1 record (they’re 11-5 overall), one game ahead of Brighton. Their slick shooting and lock-down defense are conjuring up memories of the school’s girls hoops glory days when the late Fred Thomann led the program to perennial success in league and district play.
“Everybody really pushes each other to work hard,” senior guard Ashley Kopacko said, when asked what she likes best about the team. “We have fun, but we hold each other accountable, too.”
It all starts with defense
Kopacko said the Rocks’ calling card this season is printed at the top of the players’ practice jerseys. When she turned around, the word DEFENSE was prominently displayed instead of players’ last names.
“We do a lot of drills and we focus on the little things to make sure we’re doing things the right way when the end of the game rolls around,” Kopacko said. “We’ve made major strides since coach Wells took over (before the 2021-22 season). We started out with little steps last year, but this year we’ve made major strides.”
Wells knows what it takes to reach the sport’s pinnacle. In 2016 he was the head coach at Ypsilanti Arbor Prep when it won the Class C state title. He led the Gators to a 27-0 record the following season before they dropped the Class B state championship game to Detroit Country Day.
“The first thing I had to do when I came to Salem was build up the girls’ confidence,” Wells said. “I had to make them believe in themselves. I looked at the stats from the year before and they didn’t score many points. I’m a defensive coach, but I had to change my philosophy a little bit because you’re not going to win many championships scoring 30 points a game.”
Wells encouraged his players to invest in some sweat equity by committing extra time to shooting before and after practices.
“They really put the work in and became a lot better shooters,” he said. “Once that happened, I started selling them on the defensive end. Now their shots are falling and they’re playing good defense. These girls aren’t used to being hunted, though. We stress to them all the time that, yes, they’re in first place now, but they have to finish.”
Clearing a hurdle (or three)
Wells said the biggest confidence-building win this season came Jan. 13 when Salem beat Hartland, 48-38.
“I had heard that a team from the (Plymouth-Canton Educational) Park had never beaten a Livingston County team, so that one was huge,” Wells said. “It gave us confidence because we followed it up with wins over Howell and Brighton.”
The Rocks have multiple players who can beat you. That said, the most talented is probably Madison Morson, a junior guard who scored 37 points in a recent victory.
“She’s one of the top five juniors in the state in my opinion,” Wells said, “and I’ve been around some exceptional players. She can do everything — shoot the three, knock down pull-up jumpers and take it all the way to the basket. She’s super athletic.
“Madison’s teammates love her though because she shares the basketball and takes good shots. She’s an efficient scorer. The night she scored 37, she made 16 of 22 shots.”
Several contributors to success
Wells also praised the contributions of senior guard Shahd Bakkar, Kopacko and senior guard Isabell Kulick, who holds the fastest time ever for the Salem girls cross country program.
“Shahd has improved so much the past two years; she’s a leader on and off the court,” Wells said. “Her three-point shot is so much better because she has put in the time in the gym. She’s kind of a flashy player — she likes to go behind the back and things like that — but she is a joy to coach.
“Ashley is a dead-eye shooter and such a dedicated person. She can score in multiple ways and she’s a great team player.”
Wells said Kulick is the team’s No. 1 source of inspiration.
“She only scores three or points a game, but she plays nearly 32 minutes every game and she guards the opposing team’s best player,” Wells raved. “She’s an inspiration for the rest of the team because they can watch Isabell and realize that, hey, you don’t have to be a big-time scorer to start for us. You just have to work hard and do what you’re told.”
The Rocks haven’t enjoyed a banner-raising season since the 2015 campaign when they won division, conference and district championships.
This year could break the eight-year dry spell, which could be extra sweet because no one predicted it — at least no one outside the hard-working team’s locker room.
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