- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2020

FREELAND, Mich. (AP) - As an important anniversary approached, Freeland girls basketball coach Matt Hirschenberger was faced with a dilemma … how to bring people together during a time when they are forced to stay apart.

So Hirschenberger talked to his 2020-21 captains - Hannah Niederquell, Kirsten Spegel and Hope Kloha – to determine a way to honor former coach Tom Zolinski on the anniversary of his death while also following the state Covid restrictions.

Zolinski died Nov. 22, 2019, from a heart attack. Zolinski, 55, was 244-55 in 12 seasons as the Freeland girls varsity coach, leading the Falcons to 11 district titles, eight Tri-Valley Conference championships, five regional titles and three Final Four appearances.

“The problem was that we could not be together in person yet still wanting to do something to honor Tom,” Hirschenberger told The Saginaw News. “If it is was something that would bring people together, Tom was all about that. It was Tom’s thing. But it’s hard to bring people together in our current situation.”

They developed a 5,000-make challenge, with the varsity players tasked with making 5,000 shots over a three-day period, Nov. 20-22. The players created a Google document to keep track of the made baskets.



But it soon began to grow.

“Tom used to do these FitBit step challenges, challenging anyone,” Hirschenberger said. “He even invited me. I didn’t stand a chance. He would beat everybody. This was similar to that, kind of a challenge. We basically decided to go outside and make some shots for Coach Z … 5,000 shots.

“Then we expanded it to have a little challenge. We’ve got a junior varsity team. We have a freshman team. We have an eighth-grade team, a seventh-grade team. Let’s challenge each other to make shots for Coach Z.”

Two of Zolinski’s former players – Hannah Foy and Jenna Gregory – have returned to Freeland to coach, Foy as a seventh-grade coach and Gregory as the freshman coach. They also participated, as did Hirschenberger, who did his part with 100 makes.

“I started to get the feel back again,” Hirschenberger said. “Once a few went in, it started to feel good again.”

It did not stop there. Zolinski’s former players found out about the challenge and were determined to participate.

“When (former Freeland player) Britnie Bell reached out and told me about it, I thought what an incredible way to honor him and his legacy at Freeland,” Chelsie Fuller said. “I was on the team his first year. I loved basketball. He was an incredible coach.”

Fuller, a third-grade teacher and middle-school basketball coach in Colorado, made her 100 shots all the way from Fort Lupton with her husband, Jordan Chacon, serving as a witness.

“I’ve been away for a while, but my parents (Dan and Kimm Fuller) are still in Freeland, so my dad keeps me up on how things are going and how well they’ve done over the years,” Fuller said. “It was such a great way to honor him and what he started. I was honored to be part of it.”

When the clock struck midnight on Nov. 22, the Falcons didn’t have to worry about reaching 5,000 makes. The final tally counted 32,357 made shots for Coach Zolinski.

“The competition was pretty good,” Hirschenberger said. “Rumor has it we had a couple on our team that would shoot, then look and see what other people had made. We had a couple of players out shooting at 1 in the morning, trying to keep up with each other. I’m not sure their Freeland neighbors appreciated it.

“The kids absolutely loved and adored doing it. And Tom would have loved it, seeing how it brought people together, doing something constructive, especially at a time when it’s so hard to be together. It was the perfect tribute to Coach Z.”

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