Waleed Samaha spent 14 seasons as Ann Arbor Huron’s boys basketball coach, guiding Huron to a Class A state championship game appearance at the Breslin Center in 2010.
Samaha moved on to become director of operations for John Beilein’s program at Michigan last year before returning this season to take over as head coach for Huron’s girls basketball team.
Samaha missed coaching, and definitely missed the relationships between coach and player. He is thrilled to be back while working with girls for the first time.
Samaha has Huron playing at a high level, a reason it will be a threat to be competing deep into the state tournament next month, entering with a 19-1 record, with its lone loss coming in the season opener to defending Class C state champion Detroit Edison in early December.
The state tournament gets underway Monday with district games throughout the state.
“I love coaching the girls; they’re really competitive and they like to win as much as anybody,” Samaha said. “We run the same offenses and defenses as I ran with the boys, and the girls are actually better at some things than the boys.
“We were a full-court pressure team, using multiple presses, and man-to-man was our change-up defense. We’ve gotten into great shape and the girls have bought into what we’re doing and they enjoy playing the way we play.
“This group of girls have had to adjust three times (with coaching changes) during high school, which speaks to their intelligence, competitive spirit and their love of basketball. They love the game, so no matter who is coaching them and what style of play they are presented with, they just embrace it.”
Huron — which was coached by Steve Vinson in 2016 and Lindsay Klemmer last year — is led by 6-foot-2 junior Eden Johnson (15 points, seven rebounds), who has offers from Toledo, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Oakland, 6-1 senior Shamim Wambere and sophomore point guard Reeya Patel.
“He (Samaha) definitely has a different style and brings a lot of original stuff to us, so I really appreciate everything he’s doing,” said Johnson, who scored 10 in last year’s state quarterfinal loss to Southfield A&T and Deja Church, who is now Michigan’s point guard. “I’ve learned a lot. Our chemistry is amazing. We work well together.”
Said Wambere: “We have a new coach and I feel we’ve adapted really well. We have such good chemistry on and off the court. Our competition has been through the roof, beaten Arbor Prep, Dakota and Grand Haven.”
Huron also advanced to the state quarterfinals in 2016, losing to Detroit King and Micaela Kelly, who is now the starting point guard of Mid-American Conference-leading Central Michigan.
No doubt, East Kentwood comes in as the favorite, returning the majority of its players, including 6-foot-3 Corinne Jemison, Lazurea Saunders and Alona Blackwell, from a run to the state championship game last year, where it lost to Flushing.
And, don’t forget East Lansing and Miss Basketball finalist Jaida Hampton, or Moira Joiner and Saginaw Heritage, since both teams have enjoyed strong seasons and could also be finding themselves at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where the state finals take place March 15-17.
East Lansing enters with a 20-0 record, and Heritage suffered its lone loss Tuesday, a 57-55 double-overtime thriller to Detroit Edison when it failed to protect a five-point lead during the final minute of regulation.
And, while it was freshman Damiya Hagemann who made two free throws with 3.1 seconds left to earn Edison the win over Heritage, Hagemann’s AAU Michigan Crossover teammate Kailee Davis is making a name for herself as a 5-3 freshman point guard at Detroit Renaissance.
Davis scored 32 in a 73-48 Detroit Public School League semifinal rout of perennial state power Detroit King earlier this month, a reason Renaissance could also be making a long postseason run.
■ Defending champion: Flushing
■ Favorite: East Kentwood
■ Contender: Saginaw Heritage
■ Darkhorse: Ann Arbor Huron
■ Toughest district: at Owosso with state-ranked East Lansing and DeWitt competing in the field. DeWitt’s lone loss came against unbeaten East Lansing, 52-51, on Dec. 5.
■ Final four: Saginaw Heritage over Detroit Renaissance; East Kentwood over Ann Arbor Huron.
■ Championship game: East Kentwood over Saginaw Heritage.
■ Player to watch: Camree Clegg of Kensington Lakes Activities Association champion Wayne Memorial. She has the ability to score in bunches by taking the ball to the basket or making the 3-pointer.
Frank Orlando has only gotten better with age.
Orlando, who will turn 75 in March, has guided Detroit Country Day to a record 16 state championship game appearances, winning a record 12 state championships at such places as Grand Valley State (1989), Battle Creek (1995), Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant (2003), Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti (2009) and Michigan State in East Lansing two of the last three years (2015, 2017).
You get the picture. Orlando will be trying to lead Country Day to yet another championship at a different site with the state finals moving on to Calvin College.
Country Day (15-4) will be a threat to bring home the championship trophy again with three starters back from last year’s title team, including Miss Basketball finalist Kaela Webb (17.5 points), along with Western Michigan-bound 6-0 forward Maxine Moore (13 points, seven rebounds) and point guard Jasmine Powell (11 points, five assists).
Webb scored 20 as a freshman in the state championship game win in 2015, then had 13 points and nine assists in last year’s title game win over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep, making 5-of-7 shots from the field.
“We don’t do good with Miss Basketball for some reason,” said Orlando, knowing Country Day had a few outstanding players who were Miss Basketball finalists in the last half dozen years, but came up empty each time with Aerial Powers in 2012 (fifth), Asia Doss in 2014 (fourth) and Destiny Pitts last year, finishing third.
Powers went on to lead Michigan State to a share of the Big Ten regular season title in 2014 and to a Big Ten tournament title game appearance in 2016; Doss is the point guard of Big Ten regular-season champion Ohio State this season, and Pitts is averaging 13.1 points and 7.5 rebounds this season as a freshman for Minnesota.
Sure, Orlando would love one of her players to win Miss Basketball, but knows it only fuels the fire for players to have a chip on their shoulder for the final week of the season.
Country Day will face challenges for sure with a possible regional final showdown with St. Clair and a potential semifinal showdown with unbeaten Kingsley.
In past years, Country Day would be facing Detroit Mumford in the regionals, but if the teams meet this year, it will be in the state championship game.
Mumford won the PSL title for the first time since 1977 and could be playing during the final week of the season.
Arbor Prep has dropped down to compete in Class C, but Williamston could still be a factor despite losing Western Michigan-bound guard Maddie Watters due to an ACL injury mid-season.
Williamston has a strong inside-outside game in sophomore guard Kenzie Lewis and 6-2 senior Allison Peplowski.
■ Defending champion: Detroit Country Day
■ Favorite: Country Day
■ Contender: Kingsley
■ Darkhorse: Detroit Mumford
■ Toughest district: at Paw Paw, with 19-1 Edwardsburg and 17-3 Three Rivers in the field.
■ Final four: Detroit Mumford over Williamston; Detroit Country Day over Kingsley.
■ Championship game: Country Day over Mumford.
■ Player to watch: Kaela Webb who has played well on the state’s biggest stage, helping Country Day to state titles in 2015 and again last year.
Detroit Edison is the defending champion and a solid threat to make a return trip to the state championship game.
Edison returns the bulk of its team from a year ago, including 6-3 junior Rickea Jackson, who is considered to be the top player in the state. She is joined by sophomore guard Gabrielle Elliott, who scored 21, making five 3-pointers to hand Class A power Saginaw Heritage its lone loss last week. And, freshman point guard Damiya Hagemann — who already owns offers from Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — has enjoyed a solid season.
Edison faces a potential state semifinal showdown with Pewamo-Westphalia. The teams met in the state title game last year with Edison earning a 46-44 win.
And, if Edison survives P-W, it could have a rematch with Ypsilanti Arbor Prep in the championship game. Arbor Prep handed Edison its lone loss, 54-49 on Jan. 11 when Miss Basketball finalist Lasha Petree scored 10 and limited Jackson to a season-low eight points.
“We can be very dangerous in the state tournament,” said Arbor Prep coach Scott Stine, whose team is 15-5. “We’re finally starting to do some things IQ-wise and team-wise, starting to handle pressure better. Once we get it down to the offensive zone we can score with anyone.”
And, while Arbor Prep dropped from Class B — where it lost to Detroit Country Day in last year’s state title game — to Class C, Pittsford moved up to Class C after winning the Class D state championship the past two years.
And, many fans thought Pittsford’s winning streak would come to an end following the graduation loss of standout players Maddie Clark and Jaycie Burger.
Clark and Burger led Pittsford to 55 straight wins the last two years and it would have been 82 straight in three years if not for a fourth-quarter collapse in the 2015 state title game, losing a 20-point second half lead in an eventual 64-60 overtime loss to St. Ignace to finish 26-1.
However, Pittsford coach Chris Hodos has continued to get the most out of his players, resulting in his team entering with a 75-game winning streak and just four wins away from breaking the state record held by Carney-Nadeau of 78 from 1989-91.
Pittsford already has matched the second longest streak, joining Flint Northern (1978-81) at 75 straight following its regular-season finale win over Camden-Frontier and owns a 101-1 record the last four years.
No doubt, Pittsford will be the favorite in its district at Clinton, and then in its regional semifinal game, possibly owning the record for consecutive wins before a potential regional final showdown with Arbor Prep.
■ Defending champion: Detroit Edison
■ Favorite: Edison
■ Contender: Pewamo-Westphalia
■ Darkhorse: Ypsilanti Arbor Prep
■ Toughest district: At Saginaw Nouvel with Reese and Saginaw Valley Lutheran in the field. Reese defeated Valley Lutheran 43-42 earlier this season.
■ Final four: Detroit Edison over Pewamo-Westphalia; Ypsilanti Arbor Prep over St. Ignace.
■ Championship game: Edison over Arbor Prep.
■ Player to watch: Too many to count, so let’s start with Edison’s Jackson, along with her teammate, Elliott, and Arbor Prep’s Petree, who is a Miss Basketball finalist.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart has been to the state finals, competing on the biggest stage and that type of experience is big this time of year.
Sacred Heart (20-0) also owns a talented 1-2 punch in junior guard Scout Nelson and senior center Sophie Ruggles, along with a strong supporting cast.
And, Sacred Heart has played during the final week of the postseason the last five years, including a state championship in 2014, then losing to eventual state champion Pittsford at the Breslin Center in 2016.
Now, Sacred Heart hopes to find its way to Grand Rapids and the new site of the state finals, Van Noord Arena at Calvin College.
■ Defending champion: Pittsford
■ Favorite: Kingston
■ Contender: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
■ Darkhorse: Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes
■ Toughest district: At Adrian Lenawee Christian, with Morenci and host Lenawee Christian in the field.
■ Final four: Kingston over Munising; Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart over Adrian Lenawee Christian.
■ Championship game: Sacred Heart over Kingston
■ Player to watch: Ruggles is a great athlete who can get things done on the volleyball court and basketball floor, and will be on the rowing team at Michigan State next year.