Hillman Becomes Basketball Town, Too

January 6, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

HILLMAN – Eric Muszynski still remembers that day in 2005 when, as the newly appointed boys basketball coach at Hillman, he made a promise to the man who hired him, administrator Jack Richards.

As they gazed at the banners in the school gymnasium – highlighted by the school’s three MHSAA Class D championships in baseball – Muszynski vowed to add some basketball banners to the collection.

“He (Richards) chuckled,” Muszynski recalled. “He said, ‘Try to get to .500 first.’”

Historically, Hillman’s been a baseball town. The Tigers played for MHSAA championships four times in six years during the 1990s.

“Basketball was something you did to stay in shape for baseball,” said Richards, who went on to serve as superintendent for five years. “Eric’s turned that around.”

Since 2009, Hillman has won four North Star Conference basketball championships, five Districts and one Regional. The Tigers stretched their regular-season win streak to 44 after Thursday night’s 68-38 victory over Mio. Their last regular-season loss was to Cedarville in the 2014-15 opener.

Quite a turnaround for a program that had won only one league title prior to Muszynski’s arrival.

“And that wasn’t an outright title,” senior guard Gunnar Libby said.

Libby, a first-team Associated Press all-state pick last season, is the catalyst for this 5-0 Tigers team. A four-year varsity veteran, Libby has played a vital role in the program’s growth. Hillman won its first outright league title when he was a freshman, captured its first Regional crown when he was a sophomore, and posted its first unbeaten regular season when he was a junior.

“I’ve been really lucky to play on some good teams,” he said.

The turnaround did not happen overnight. The Tigers were 10-32 in Muszynski’s first two years.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Will we ever get over that hump?’” Muszynski wondered.

His boss stood by him.

“I had some people come to my office, saying he wasn’t the guy for the job,” Richards said. “I told them, ‘Settle down. This guy will bring us championships.’ Eric heard me, and he took it to heart. He worked hard to prove me right.”

In his third season, Muszynski led Hillman to an 11-10 mark. From there, the program took off.

“It’s been truly amazing,” the former Alpena High School standout said. “As a coach, you envision and hope that your program can do big things. We’ve been in that conversation – of trying to get down to East Lansing (for the Final Four) – since 2013 when we almost upset Cedarville (a double overtime loss) in the Regional Final.”

Hillman, sparked by Mason VanPamel and Ty Jones, reached the Quarterfinals in 2015 before losing to eventual champion Powers North Central.

It looked like the Tigers might be in for a rebuild last season, losing eight seniors and four starters to graduation. Instead, Hillman won its first 22 games before losing to Onaway 58-57 in the District Final.

“We were counted out from the very beginning,” Libby said. “We proved everybody wrong.”

Still, the setback to Onaway – a team Hillman had knocked out of the Districts the previous three years – left a bitter taste. Onaway reached the Quarterfinals, but that loss motivates the Tigers.

When his team first gathered for practice this season, Muszynski stressed the importance of “protecting” its league title as well as recapturing the District championship. Hillman had won three Districts in a row before its sudden exit last March.

“That District (trophy) should be in Hillman,” Libby said.

That statement reflects how far this program has evolved. It’s a program that’s now won 46 consecutive league games and 36 consecutive home games.

Those streaks continue to grow, although Libby admitted he’s lost count.

“You just go out there and do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

The 5-foot-9 Libby is the floor general and lone senior in the starting lineup. He averages 25 points and six assists per game. He surpassed 1,000 career points in the season opener when he dropped 30 on Cedarville.

“He’s lightning quick,” Muszynski said. “He’s a tough kid; a hard-nosed, old school style point guard.”

Libby’s backcourt mate, 5-10 junior Brandon Banks, averages nearly 15 a game.

“That’s been our recipe for success since 2009,” Muszynski said. “We usually feature two dynamic scorers.”

Andrew Funk, a 6-foot junior, is also averaging in double figures. He scored 19 in Tuesday’s win, hitting five of Hillman’s 13 3-pointers.

The Tigers compensate for lack of size with speed, a trapping defense and a dangerous perimeter game. Kory Henigan, a 6-4 sophomore, and Billy Kolcan, a 6-1 junior, are the tallest starters. Henigan averages eight points and seven rebounds while the athletic Kolcan, an MHSAA Finals qualifier in track and an honorable mention all-state player in football, spearheads the press.

“He (Kolcan) plays up front on our press,” Muszynski said. “He makes us go. He’s one of the best athletes to come through our school in a long time.”

Kolcan, Banks and Funk were on varsity as sophomores last season.

“On paper, it appears we’re young,” Muszynski said. “But we’re battle-tested.”

And, according to Libby, cohesive, too.

“We work well together,” Libby said. “We’re unselfish – and we scrap.”

Now, the Tigers would like to start playing more basketball. Hillman played just three games in December after two contests were postponed due to weather.

“It’s hard to get any kind of rhythm and consistency when you play two games, then you’re off two weeks, you play one game, then you’re off another two weeks,” Libby said.

As for Muszynski, this is his 12th season at Hillman. He was hired as a physical education/health/social studies teacher and girls basketball coach. When the boys job opened soon afterward, he added that to his responsibilities. He coached both teams for two years before the MHSAA switched girls basketball season to the winter. Even though the girls were 30-12 in those two seasons under his leadership, he felt coaching boys basketball was his calling.

“I liked the challenge,” he said. “With the girls, I walked into a good program. With the boys, I wanted to see if I could build a program.”

With a win over Rudyard just before the holiday break, the 37-year-old Muszynski notched his 200th career win at Hillman (30 with the girls, 170 with the boys).

“He’s been a real blessing for us,” Libby said. “He’s a great coach. He holds us all accountable. He’s thorough, and he can motivate. He knows his stuff.”

“I’m truly blessed,” Muszynski added. “That’s (200 wins) a credit to my players, past and present.”

Muszynski echoed those same sentiments after he won the Associated Press Class D Coach of the Year honor last season.

“One of the proudest moments in my coaching career,” he admitted. “Not only was it a great reward, but it was a reflection of our basketball program here.”

Richards, meanwhile, takes satisfaction in the basketball program’s accomplishments. Now retired, he still follows the Tigers – and Muszynski.

What did he see in Muszynski when he hired him in 2005?

“He has a drive,” Richards said. “He knows what it takes and the work that’s involved. A lot of people just want to work during the season, and when it’s over they’re done. That’s not Eric. He’s a worker, a planner. You could see his desire.”

Richards also feared, once the boys started winning, that Muszynski might leave for a bigger school. He even mentioned that to Muszynski.

“Eric said, ‘You gave me the opportunity to be a head coach and I want to do right by you,’” Richards recalled. “I said, ‘I understand that. But let me give you a piece of advice: it’s easier to build a dynasty in a small town than in a large town.’ I think he’s done a pretty good job with that.”

Muszynski looked north to Cedarville for inspiration. Coach Dave Duncan developed that program into a state contender. The Trojans won an MHSAA title in 2007 and nearly another two years later.

“I thought if a small Class D school in the Upper Peninsula can do that, why can’t we?” Muszynski reasoned.

One of Muszynski’s first priorities was to start applying his philosophies in the youth program so by the time those players reached the varsity they would know the defensive schemes and offensive sets.

“They’ve seen success so they know the formula works,” Muszynski said. “If you have some success, and start to win championships, everyone starts to buy in.”

As for baseball? Practice is still several weeks away.

“When I first got there,” Richards recalled, “the kids, after basketball practice, would put their gloves on and throw the baseball around. They even had a batting cage in the old gym. Now, you don’t see a baseball glove in the gym during the winter.”

Now you see basketball banners.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gunnar Libby, who has scored more than 1,000 points during his Hillman career, cuts through a group of defenders. (Middle) Hillman coach Eric Muszynski addresses his team. (Photos courtesy of The Alpena News.)

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

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

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.