When you watch Salem’s six senior girls basketball players joke, hang out and enjoy each other’s company, it’s hard to fathom what they’ve been through together just in the past 14 months.
Last year was one of despair, dealing with the December 2013 death of their longtime coach, Fred Thomann — and then trying to get back on track with a different voice on the sidelines in Lindsay Klemmer.
“We were all really good friends before, but we turned from friends to family,” post player Maranda Armstead said. “We all knew we had each other, and that’s all we could really depend on.”
Then the sun came up again.
Yes, Thomann’s untimely and tragic death did leave a huge void in the hearts of six junior players he’d led for several years — Armstead, Allison First, Katie Latack, Shara Long, Hayley Rogers and Jamyra Wilson.
But this winter, those players now are in their final season at Salem. They and their coach are motivated to help them finish what they started back in 2009-10 when they got first became teammates with the AAU Western Wayne Wolfpack developmental program.
With Thomann’s memory always in their thoughts, the Rocks have enjoyed a season to cherish.
Salem captured the KLAA Central Division with a perfect 10-0 record and the team (13-4 overall) now is intent on winning the conference tournament, which began Tuesday with a 40-38 win over Westland John Glenn.
From there, the Rocks look to keep rolling right on to the Breslin Center, where the Class A Final Four will play in March.
“It’s awesome, I know this has been our dream probably since freshman year,” said Rogers, who plays wing. “And it’s really great to finally see it happening. We were so excited Friday (Feb. 6) when we clinched it, we were all just jumping around, screaming.”
Rogers said she still wears the royal blue wristband with Thomann’s initials “FJT” that each Rocks player was given Jan. 14, 2014, the night the coaching legend was honored at Salem.
“I think he always knew we had the potential,” she noted. “… I think he’d be really proud of us to see that we’re living up to what he always thought we could be.”
Although point guard Wilson laughed when she described the team as being “a big, crazy, dysfunctional family,” it can get down to business, too.
“I knew that we could always do it,” Wilson said. “I always wanted to have our year up there on the boards since the day I came in here, and I knew one year we were going to do it.
“I was hoping for all my four years, but I knew that wasn’t realistic. But since it’s my senior year and we actually did it it feels amazing.”
All six players — friends and teammates since middle school — give a big assist to Klemmer, a former Salem standout player who joined Thomann’s coaching staff at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
“Lindsay’s great, she really pushes us and motivates us to play every game like it’s our last,” post player Long said. “Since we are seniors we have to play each game like it’s our last.
“You never know, a bad injury, a missed game in districts, anything can happen.”
Yet they often think about Thomann.
“Obviously, losing Fred was a really big impact on our team,” Long continued. “And last year it was hard to come back (after the death). But we bounced back and I think this year it really showed our potential.”
Long added that Thomann “inspired me a lot to be the player I am today and I’m sure it’s true for the rest of our seniors.”
First, a wing player, credited both Thomann and Klemmer for helping the team go from untapped potential to one with aspirations for a lengthy playoff run.
“He really pushed us to become better players,” First said. “And Lindsay just taught us to communicate more and we’ve all really grown as a team.”
According to Latack, a guard who joined the Salem varsity in her freshman year (the others came on board as sophomores), their prep careers have been like being on a roller-coaster.
Last year was the obvious low point, but now things are on the upswing.
“It has had its ups and down,” Latack emphasized. “But I think it’s made us stronger as a team because we knew we could rely on each other.
“And then we just helped each other through everything (Thomann’s death and the aftermath). I think it brought us closer in the end.”
Even when this season started with the Rocks losing the first four games, the tight-knit group didn’t waver about getting it together for one glorious swan song.
“We just figured this is our last year and we wanted to just go all-out, not hold anything back,” said Wilson, remembering the impact Thomann made on their work ethic and resolve, going back to their years with the Wolfpack. “He (Thomann) would push us to definitely move forward and push us as hard as we can, no excuses.”
Time to reboot
Yet Rogers said the team realized it wasn’t that far off the mark in those early losses, all against top-notch opponents such as Plymouth (in the season opener), Farmington Hills Mercy and Dearborn Divine Child.
“After the horrible start against Plymouth, we said ‘That wasn’t us, we’re putting that game aside,'” Rogers recalled. “And we started working harder, focusing more on technical, really worked on our defense.
“And then for the next three games we were really close, we almost beat Mercy. We were really close to Divine Child, close to Brighton. And then after that we’re like, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous, we got to get going.’ And then we turned the corner. Everything started clicking.”
Having a chance to laugh and blow off steam didn’t hurt as the Rocks turned the calendar to January. That’s where the “fun” in dysfunctional took over.
“For new year’s eve we all got together at Katie’s house and watched High School Musical 3, (about) a high school musical senior year,” Rogers went on. “We started crying, because it was after midnight, we’re like ‘Oh my gosh, this is us!’ It’s just the small stuff like that. We’re crazy, I guess.
Armstead said they get together at different player’s homes for pasta parties.
“One of the things we do is play (the video game) Just Dance and we sing a lot,” Armstead continued. “That really just lightens the mood and makes us realize how much we actually are a family.”
Of course, it’s not just about having great times away from the basketball court. The girls still knew they had to produce in their games.
Thanks to Klemmer’s encouragement, the seniors spearheaded creation of a so-called “Vision Board” that is taped to a wall near Klemmer’s office.
It actually is a construction paper sign, with keywords (focus, consistency, family, intensity, heart), symbols and drawings helping the Rocks visualize going up the tournament mountain to Breslin.
The first step was the KLAA Central title, Salem’s first in six years. Next on the agenda is the conference tourney.
Before games and at halftime, players tap the light brown sign for extra motivation. As if they needed it.
“Yeah, we’ve had these (goals) in our mind the whole year,” Klemmer said. “But a couple weeks ago we just decided that we wanted to put it in front of us, so that every time we came in to the locker room, prior to the game, prior to practice, every time we walked out on the court, we saw what we’re reaching for.
“It’s kind of a mountain we’re trying to climb, but you have to knock off certain things to get to the ultimate goal.”
Long said the sign definitely is making a positive difference.
“It was our coach’s idea, and one day before practice we all just worked on it,” Long stressed. “We all contributed, we all wrote our (uniform) numbers, we wrote ‘Salem Rocks, it’s a mountain we climb, each step is a new goal.’
“Once we got division, now we’re going up for KLAA and then districts and regionals, keep climbing up our mountain.”
First concurred that while the sign gave the Rocks an extra boost, “I think we had it in us (to win the division). That just gave us the push to really see it and know what we’re going for.”
Sounds pretty logical for such a “crazy, dysfunctional” team.
They’re crazy good, actually. Fred Thomann would approve.