ANN ARBOR — According to Charlotte Miller, it really isn’t hard to figure out how to put together a winning basketball team.
“Definitely, working together and playing as a family,” Ann Arbor Fr. Gabriel Richard’s junior guard said. “A lot of schools are about one player, one individual, and we can sacrifice. When we’re not playing good, we can still help our other teammates and support them.”
“We just have to stay together and keep playing for each other,” added her coach, Tim Cain. “If selfishness comes, we’re going to struggle. As long as they sacrifice for each other, play for each other, then we’ll do just fine.”
The Fighting Irish might have surprised a few Catholic League followers a year ago when they shared the Central Division title and won 19 games, including their first Bishop Division championship. Despite an unplanned early exit from last season’s state playoffs, Fr. Gabriel Richard has become even more cohesive this winter and is continuing to play at a high level, as evidenced by their 8-0 start over the season’s first month.
“We have more talent, we have new players, but it’s the same work ethic, the same ‘family’ mindset,” Miller said. “I think we’re going to be really good this year.”
“I just think we’re a little bit older,” Cain said. “We’ve got three pretty good guards who are still young. Our post players are developing. We’re big, strong — we’re a match-up problem whether we play man or zone (defenses) and the girls really know the game, so we’re able to do a lot more things than other teams.”
The Fighting Irish are ranked second among Division 2 teams by the Michigan High School Athletic Association while the Detroit Free Press has them rated first.
Regardless of exact placement, two factors bring attention to Ann Arbor: a well-rounded mix of talent and several signature wins.
Cain can go seven-deep with his players and often rotates his starting lineup. One constant is Miller, a third-year varsity player who led the Fighting Irish with 22 points in a 59-36 home-court win over Birmingham Marian on Jan. 5.
“She’s like a coach on the floor and she can shoot,” Cain said. “I tell her every day she could score 30 or 40 with a lesser program, but she’s also sacrificed shots.”
That’s not a problem for Miller, since she’s joined on the point by sisters Vanessa and Ava Rodriguez. Vanessa was all-state in 2022-23, and while Ava was sidelined by an ACL injury and couldn’t contribute as much to last year’s title run, she is gaining explosiveness and can shoot well.
Like the other three players, Saige Edmonson is a good outside shooter, but can play in the post and is one of the team’s top rebounders. Veronica Fredericks and Cora Williams bring strength underneath the basket and allow the Fighting Irish to match up size-wise with other Central Division opponents.
Bethie Benz is a versatile player who also contributes as the vocal senior leader.
Fr. Gabriel Richard won its first three Catholic League games decisively over Warren Regina, Marian and Dearborn Divine Child. Outside of the league, the Fighting Irish downed Midland Dow, Ypsilanti Arbor Prep, Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Lansing Catholic and Detroit Mumford.
“We beat Midland Dow in the first game of the season, and I said that was a really good team — they’re going to win 18-20 games — and we just played well defensively,” Cain said. “Then we had a big test against Arbor Prep, and we were just so physical defensively that I don’t think they were quite ready for it. That was a great win. We beat (defending state champions) Lansing Catholic here. We really played well defensively, held them to 30 points, but they’re so talented, they’ll respond — they’ll be back.”
With wins over programs of that caliber, the Fighting Irish have set lofty goals — to win the Central Division, the Catholic League title, the state district, regional and quarterfinal games, and reach the championship round at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center in late March.
“We’ve just got to keep working like we always do,” Miller said. “Stay together, and keep our eyes on the prize.”
St. Mary’s Prep is also undefeated
The Catholic League’s other remaining unbeaten girls team is Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep (also 8-0). While the Eaglets have been good — but not great — in their brief co-ed hardwood history, a batch of new, young players and a new coach have helped St. Mary’s elevate its game this winter.
“The last couple of years we’ve had some success, and I think that’s helped,” said coach Brad Crighton, who previously spent several seasons as an assistant with the Eaglets’ noted boys program.
“We moved up a division, we brought in some new players, and they’ve all gotten along. It’s not easy sometimes for other players to accept, but I think they’ve grown up a lot, and it’s good to see,” Crighton said. “I thought there was going to be (an adjustment period), but there really hasn’t. They all just got along.”
Like Fr. Gabriel Richard, St. Mary’s Prep has a balanced lineup and can beat opponents in any number of ways.
“We have three girls who are averaging in double figures, and our fourth and fifth are right there close,” Crighton said. “We don’t rely on one person to do our scoring, which is nice. It’s something that a lot of girls teams don’t have a lot of the time, and I think it helps to spread the floor — that helps us do what we want to do.”
Guards Layla Stewart, Allie Crighton and Stella Poota are the team’s top three scorers, although forwards Brooke Shockey and Reese Holton aren’t far behind.
Against Royal Oak Shrine on Jan. 9, Poota, Stewart and Shockey scored quick baskets, and Poota added a three-pointer to go up 9-0 in the first 1:05 of the game — even before Shrine could muster its first shot. The Eaglets added eight more points before giving up the first opposing basket a minute and a half later.
“We like to get out and go,” Crighton said. “I want to respect the game a little bit, but we do like to push the ball and we do like to push the tempo, and I think we got off to a good start. We were hitting shots, and the game is easy when you’re making shots.”
The Eaglets went on to win, 64-35, led by a game-high 19 points from Allie Crighton (including five three-pointers). Poota scored 12 (all in the first half), and Shockey chipped in with eight.
St. Mary’s Prep is somewhat under the ratings radar because of their youth. Stewart, Crighton and Holton are freshmen, while Shockey is a sophomore and Poota is a junior. Their top player off the bench, guard Jessica Asmussen, is also a freshman — making the St. Mary’s lineup radically different from the squad that finished 8-13 a year ago.
“I think we have the talent,” coach Crighton said. “There’s still a couple of things we can improve on, and we just need to kind of clean some things up, but yes, there’s some talent there.”
The Eaglets are gearing up for a Jan. 16 showdown against Catholic League newcomer Jackson Lumen Christi, which also won its first eight games before suffering its first loss, 33-29, to Marshall on Jan. 9. Included in the Titans’ win total — which matches their entire output from last season — are four victories against Catholic League opponents.