Detroit Country Day head coach Amber Deane talks to her team during their matchup against Ypsilanti Arbor Prep Feb. 15 at Country Day High School.

Detroit Country Day head coach Amber Deane talks to her team during their matchup against Ypsilanti Arbor Prep Feb. 15 at Country Day High School.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Yellowjackets’ ‘connection’ difference-maker in search for state championship

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 20, 2024

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 Country Day junior Ari’Yana Wiggins, left, and freshman Sanyiah Blackwell work on their dance moves.

Country Day junior Ari’Yana Wiggins, left, and freshman Sanyiah Blackwell work on their dance moves.

Photo by Donna Dalziel


BEVERLY HILLS — Before the start of the 2023-2024 campaign, Detroit Country Day girls basketball held a certain type of practice for the first time under second-year coach Amber Deane.

Deane, a 2012 Country Day graduate, is unlike most girls high school basketball coaches in the state, winning a state championship in 2009 and four consecutive district and regional championships with Country Day as a player under legendary Yellowjackets coach Frank Orlando before playing Division 1 college basketball at the University of Dayton and Indiana University.

She knows a thing or two about winning, and more importantly, she knows how a team’s chemistry can be integral to their success.

So when Country Day held its first overnight practice where the team spent the night at the school, the Yellowjackets, forefronted by five key seniors in Jaidyn Elam, Emma Arico, Peja Liles, Julia Younes, and Ayaana Hai, had plenty of time to learn anything and everything about one another.

“What I love about the group is how much they care for everyone off of the court,” Deane said. “I think that’s been really big for us, a ‘bigger than basketball’ kind of thing. I feel like there’s a connection with myself and them as well, which is super important that we have the same talking points, and there’s that connection.”

If the overnight practice wasn’t enough time, the Yellowjackets have done Top Golf, out-of-state games in Illinois and Ohio, and Friday morning workouts before school to bring the team closer together.

Even when they’re off the court, they have their “lunch squad” to always fall back on.

“We have a lot of upperclassmen, so we’re just trying to guide the younger players and preparing them for next year, for when we’re gone.” Arico said.

Country Day’s mindset this season was built off of the heartbreak the Yellowjackets have continuously gone through in the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 2 state tournament in recent years.

Whether it was the triple overtime loss to Goodrich in the regional finals last year or back-to-back semifinals losses the two years prior, returning to the state finals stage for a team with eight state titles and three state runner-up spots since 2000 has been a challenge.

With the amount of talent the Yellowjackets feature this year, the only thing left to shape up was their ability to play team basketball.

“I feel like we learned a lot from last season,” Elam said. “We just came in knowing that we don’t want to be where we were, so we’re just trying to improve off of that. Stuff like knowing how to control time and when to make good decisions. We worked a lot on our decision-making and working together as a unit.”

Elam, an Oakland University commit, has done her part this season on the offensive end as one of the most prolific scorers in the state.

Elam has worked on being more of a vocal leader this season off of the court, and Deane said she’s at her best as a patient offensive player.

“I think it’s when she lets the game come to her, because she’s so athletic, so long and strong,” Deane said. “Sometimes she makes it look easy out there because she just has those physical gifts that you can’t teach. When the game comes to her, she’s unstoppable. When she picks her spots and takes advantage of those athletic gifts that she has, it makes the game so much easier for her and opens things up for the rest of the team around her.”

It doesn’t get any easier for opposing defenses behind Elam with junior and three-year starter Ari’Yana Wiggins, sophomore Jayla Jackson, sophomore Naiya Krispin, and Arico, a University of Michigan lacrosse commit, all providing an offensive boost.

And even behind them, the Yellowjackets have young, incoming stars such as freshmen Cece Arico, younger sister of Emma; Alina Younes; and Sanyiah Blackwell all making an impact in their first year.

“It’s been tremendous,” Elam said. “We got players like Naiya Krispin who have really stepped up. Jayla Jackson and Ari’Yana Wiggins have really stepped up this year for the team. Then we have incoming players like Alina (Younes), Sanyiah (Blackwell) and Cece (Arico). They’re really coming in and fitting with the team chemistry.”

Currently 14-5 and on a six-game winning streak, Country Day is playing like the team to beat in Division 2 basketball.

Their schedule already looks like a state tournament bracket with games against ranked opponents such as West Bloomfield (No. 1), Tecumseh (No. 67), Detroit Edison (No. 3), Detroit Renaissance (No. 8) and Haslett (No. 15).

Deane said Country Day, currently ranked No. 23, according to The D Zone Top 100, scheduled in December and January so they would be ready for the state tournament in March.

“One of the biggest pieces of advice from me when I first got hired here was coach O (Orlando) telling me to schedule very hard in the non-conference, telling me to go play anybody and take those risks to learn where we fall short and some of our weaknesses in December, January and even February,” Deane said. “I took that advice and communicated that very early with the girls.”

With Country Day feeling like a team and playing like a team, they’re going to be a tough out for anyone in the Division 2 bracket.

Hopefully, for the Yellowjackets’ senior class, their final farewell to Country Day will be with a state championship trophy.

“We’re aiming for that state championship,” Emma Arico said. “Every year we’ve been so close. I just think that if we put it all together and play as a team, we can reach our goal.”