Frankfort Advances in Memorable Fashion

March 14, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Either way late in Friday night’s Division 4 Semifinal, Frankfort was headed to the record book.

For most of the first three quarters, it seemed the Panthers were cruising toward reaching the MHSAA championship round for the first time.

Then, over six minutes of game time, they found themselves running the risk of being on the wrong end of the largest comeback in Finals weekend history.

After senior Ethan Ness’ free throw with eight seconds left on the clock, and then one more stop on the other end of the court, Frankfort emerged with a 44-43 win over Wyoming Tri-unity Christian to reach the final day of the season for the first time in this sport.

The Panthers will take on Southfield Christian in Saturday’s first Final at 10 a.m., after a day to recover from also watching a 23-point lead dissolve between the third and fourth quarters.

“We trust our teammates. If we go down, we get ready, we get back up, and we trust everyone on this team,” Frankfort sophomore guard Jack Stefanski said. “Everyone is here for a reason. We’ll fight through anything.

“This has never happened in Frankfort history for boys, and no one thought we’d be good this year. … We knew we had to step up this year, with a new coach and new players. We had to start our legacy, and this is how we started.”

And for all the reasons mentioned above, it was unforgettable.

Frankfort (21-5) did graduate its top six players from last season, and coach Dan Loney did take the program over this winter after previously serving as an assistant. The Panthers did finish second in the annually-strong Northwest Conference – but then lost to sub-.500 Buckley in the regular-season finale and needed overtime wins twice to get to Breslin Center.

Thursday’s start, against a Tri-unity program with four Class D championships and four more runner-up finishes, was truly impressive. In part with a 10-0 run to finish the first half, Frankfort took a 26-12 advantage into the break, then opened the third quarter with nine more consecutive points to make it 35-12 with 2:22 to go in the period.  

But longtime Tri-unity coach Mark Keeler had a card or two left to play – namely, a defensive press that contributed to 10 Frankfort turnovers over an ensuing 27-2 comeback.

“I’ve had that happen before, having coached as long as I have. The key is we need to focus on defense – but saying it and doing it are two different things,” said Keeler, who has led the team to 599 wins over 32 seasons.

“When we went to the press … they finally made up their minds that they wanted to give it everything they had. All of a sudden they were focused on defense, not focused on offense, and that takes the pressure off. You relax, and all of a sudden you’re getting shots to fall.”

The Defenders (22-4) took a 39-37 lead on senior Elijah Badgero’s basket with 4:08 to play.

But like in nine other games won by six or fewer points this season, Frankfort came through. First, senior guard Will Newbold tied the score with 3:26 to play. Ness gave the Panthers a three-point lead at 2:39 with a long-range shot, and Newbold made the margin four with a free throw with 55 seconds left.

They needed every one of those points, as Tri-unity senior Brayden Ophoff and freshman Brady Titus sunk buckets to bring the score even at 43-43 with 20 seconds to play. But Ness was fouled on the next possession and connected on one of two free-throw tries to take back the lead once more. A group of Panthers held their ground in the lane on Tri-unity’s final attempt for the win, and Frankfort celebrated.

“I’m not sure why it keeps coming down to this,” Loney said. “We knew they would make a run at some point tonight. It was not going to be a blowout by any means. When they brought that full court pressure, it rattled the guys a little bit.

“(But) these guys have found ways to win close games all year. They’re a resilient bunch, no matter what the score is. I can’t tell you guys how many close games we’ve had like this this year, and these kids have stepped up to the plate and ended with a win.”

Newbold led the Panthers with 16 points and four steals. Ness finished with 11 points and six rebounds, Stefanski had seven points and 13 rebounds and senior forward Jack Reznich had five assists and six rebounds.

Senior Bennett Sinner led Tri-unity with 16 points and six steals, and grabbed eight rebounds. Badgero had 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankfort’s Ethan Ness (22) sets up the offense while Brady Titus defends. (Middle) Jack Stefanski (0) looks for an open teammate Thursday with Brayden Ophoff applying pressure.

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.