Energy, Competition, Moments & More Continue to Spark Unity Coach Soodsma

By Steve Vedder
Special for

February 15, 2023

HUDSONVILLE – The pep band is blaring the school fight song, the boisterous crowd of a couple of thousand fans has long grown weary waiting for the opening tip-off, and the antsy players are crowded behind the locker room doors ready to spring like a pack of lions.

It's like the scene from the epic basketball movie "Hoosiers" where coach Norman Dale pauses before entering a rollicking and packed Friday night gymnasium to mutter to himself, "Welcome to Indiana basketball."

Scott Soodsma not only grasps the significance of that scene firsthand, it's why after four decades he still loves coaching.

"The fierce competition, the band, your heart pounding like a dog – it's still like it was 30 years ago," said Soodsma, the Hudsonville Unity Christian coach and dean of West Michigan basketball coaches in his 41st season of a run that’s included two states and three schools.

"How does it get any better than that? I'm always telling the kids to live for the moment. You can't replace all that; I still get the shivers. I've had so many moments like that."

Among those highlight moments are being one of just two Michigan coaches to win both girls and boys MHSAA Finals championships (Paul Cook of Lansing Eastern was the other), and the moment he claims is easily No. 1 on his all-time personal list: coaching his daughter Amber as part of the 2006 Class B champ. Unity Christian also won a 2019 boys state title. He also won a third Finals championship with the boys at McBain Northern Michigan Christian.

Soodsma, 63, admits there have been myriad changes in coaching basketball since his first season at North Dakota's James Valley Christian High School in 1983 and coming to Unity Christian in 1993. For starters, players are bigger and stronger and are more schooled in the game through AAU and offseason programs. In addition, the influence of parents – for better or worse – has increased dramatically. As for the on-court game, Soodsma unabashedly admits he at first fought the institution of the 3-point shot. And the emphasis on winning has definitely only increased pressure on many coaches.

Soodsma, a member of the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame who ranks ninth on the state's all-time boys wins list with 635, said he's adapted to the times. He wants to win as much as he ever has, still broods for days after losses and still considers himself receptive to the changing Xs and Os aspect of coaching.

But where his booming voice routinely used to resonate loudly into the middle sections of the Unity Christian bleachers, most of those comments now are only audible to fans perched in the first couple rows of the stands. Which is probably a good thing, Soodsma adds sheepishly.

Soodsma and daughter Amber embrace during their team’s 2006 Class B Final victory.Coaching, he readily contends, is still coaching – and winning still heads the list of priorities. He does add one disclaimer, however, in terms of winning. Whereas it used to be about a young coach building a resume through wins, it's now about what winning can do for today's teenager athlete. An old-school coach? Yeah, probably. But one who has learned much about himself, players and parents after 41 years.

"I've learned to enjoy the kids more; I'm definitely a different kind of person in the ’90s as opposed to now in the 2000s," he said. "I am a stubborn man, and it took a long time (to change). But winning? Oh, yeah. I've never backed down. The winning and losing hasn't changed, and I make no excuses that I still want to win."

Which is then strange, perhaps, that he doesn't list being just one of two coaches to win Finals titles in both girls and boys basketball as the zenith of coaching for 41 seasons. That honor goes to having his daughter, who went on to a stellar career at Dort College, on the state championship club.

"It's not that big of a deal," he said of being on the bench for what likely will never happen again as boys and girls basketball are now in the same season. "To me it's not an accomplishment I would rank (at the top). I'm just being honest. Winning a state title with Amber, and the picture I have of her and me in my office, that's the best."

How well has Soodsma adapted his coaching style over the years? Two people in a position to know offer their own opinions on the topic, including 22-year assistant Bruce Capel and Randy Oosterheert, who with son Rylan are the only father/son combination that Soodsma has coached.

"Scott has always been vocal on the sidelines as a coach. As I sit in the stands and watch as a spectator, same Scott," said Randy Oosterheert who played for Soodsma in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and whose son is a current Unity Christian player. "I will say that my son and I agree, if you do something wrong on the floor, he is the first person to greet you on the sidelines and point out your failure. However, if you do good, he is the first person to greet you on the sidelines and tell you good job.

"The latter is done at a little lower decibel level than the offense, and those with a watchful eye from up in the stands unfortunately (don’t) get to hear the praise, only the punishment. Scott is obviously very competitive, then and now. He expects a lot but gives a lot."

As far as the competitive side, Capel hasn’t seen much of a difference over their two decades together.

"Certainly, coaching is a lot different in how you approach kids from more than 20 years ago," he said. "There's a difference in society and you have to change with it, and he's done that. I don't think it's as much life and death with Scott anymore. But in terms of winning, I haven't seen that go away."

It's a coin flip as for how much longer Soodsma will be directing traffic from the sidelines. He broke into the top 10 among the all-time winningest boys coaches in Michigan history by passing Warren De La Salle's Bernie Holowicki and Ray Lauwers of Morley Stanwood last season. Next on the list is Big Rapids' Kent Ingles (644). When you factor in Soodsma's win total as both boys and girls coach, the 742-and-counting combined wins rank eighth in state history.

He does admit the desire to spend more time with wife Mary, the longtime away scorekeeper for the program, and 11 grandkids scattered from Denver to Seattle to San Diego. Retirement could strike when this season ends in March, or it could still be several Marches away. But when the end comes he anticipates making a contented transition from arguing with officials, coming to an "understanding" with parents and devising new Xs and Os. Soon, he mused, will come time for much-anticipated passions such as hunting, fishing and pickleball.

"For the first time I've contemplated it," he said. "There are a lot of things I'd like to do. I'm not a basketball junkie."

That may be true. But it'll still be tough to surrender those noisy pep bands, bright gymnasium lights and the din of Friday night crowds.

PHOTOS (Top) Hudsonville Unity Christian boys basketball coach Scott Soodsma stands in front of a portion of the school’s trophy case, which he’s helped fill over decades coaching basketball. (Middle) Soodsma and daughter Amber embrace during their team’s 2006 Class B Final victory. (Top photo by Steve Vedder. Middle photo courtesy of the Soodsma family.)

Little Provides Major Stride as 1st Woman to Officiate Boys Hoops Final since 1995

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

April 13, 2023

Delonda Little was already a trailblazer to many before this year’s MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals.

Greater DetroitBut what happened last month at Breslin Center made her even more of one on a statewide level.

A referee and assigner for 20 years in the Detroit area, Little is a female boys and girls basketball official who mentors both male and female referees – no matter the gender or level, as she officiates high school and college games.

Officials often go to Little for guidance, direction and assignments, which has made her respected for years throughout Metro Detroit in the prep basketball community. Then, her status as a trailblazer grew even more.

Little was assigned as an official for the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis, and she became the first female referee to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since Traverse City’s Barb Beckett 1995.

“It was a very good feeling to know I was the one selected,” said Little, who officiated the Final with Matt Olson and Zach Porritt.  

In fact, while attending a Semifinal game the Friday before the Final, Little received a phone call from an area code she didn’t recognize.

She answered, and it was Beckett.

“At first I didn’t know the name,” Little said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t know you, but that’s fine.’”

Beckett then explained she was the first female referee to be assigned a Boys Basketball Final, and just wanted to offer support to Little.

At that point, Little became excited and thankful she answered the call.

“It was very nice to hear from her because she wanted to reach out and if not pass the torch, to congratulate me,” Little said.

Little, 51, said she found out she was going to be refereeing the Division 3 boys championship game just before the start of the postseason when she received an email from the MHSAA.

“I’m looking at the email and I’m like, boys?” Little said. “I was shocked.”

But she was shocked in a good way, and obviously excited for the honor.

Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.Little didn’t find out until a couple of days before the St. Francis/Beecher contest that she would be officiating that specific championship game, but the Monday of boys championship week was when she really started to receive congratulations from friends and colleagues.

That’s when an article came out in the Detroit News detailing her selection, which led to countless calls, texts and congratulatory messages on social media.

“I couldn’t even (keep up with the comments),” she said. “That’s how overwhelming the actual tags were. It came from all across the state with officials, men and women, because I do women’s college (games). Some of the college ladies were reaching out. I was getting all the hoopla before the game.”

Little said she normally doesn’t get nervous for games, but not having some nerves became a bit harder once so many people knew of her achievement.

However, she settled into a normal routine quickly once the game started.

“I wanted to get it done, get it over with and do well,” she said.

Little did do well, which is no surprise to everyone who knew her before she officiated on the boys championship stage.

It was just another feather in the cap for Little, who in 2016 became the first woman to officiate a boys Detroit Public School League championship game.

“Delonda is one of the top officials in the Detroit area, and our staff doesn’t look at Delonda as a female working a boys game – we see one of the top officials in Detroit working a basketball game,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are females officiating in the NBA and female officials in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The aspect that made Delonda’s selection for this MHSAA championship game nearly unique will soon be the norm at all levels of athletics.”     

Little graduated from Detroit Osborn in 1989 and starred on the basketball court at Wayne State, earning induction into WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her day job is as an officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, but her passion is officiating. She’s been an MHSAA-registered official for basketball for two decades and also was registered for volleyball for four years. This past fall she registered for football for the first time.

“I get something from it because it keeps me in shape, I love the people I work with and I like the kids,” Little said. “You are always teaching, and I like training the newer officials. I just enjoy it. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t refereeing.”

Going forward, Little hopes her championship game assignment will now be an inspiration for other female referees.

“There aren’t very many women who would like to work boys basketball or feel comfortable,” Little said. “If that’s something they desire, I’m hoping more women are selected to work the games if they feel comfortable.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Delonda Little takes her position on the court during the Division 3 Boys Basketball Final on March 25 at Breslin Center. (Middle) Little monitors the action between Flint Beecher and Traverse City St. Francis.