DETROIT – The annual nonconference boys basketball rivalry game between Union City and Mendon took on a different twist in early December.
Rather than their usual meeting at the school gym, this year's clash took place on a much bigger stage inside Little Caesars Arena, home of the NBA's Detroit Pistons.
It was Union City posting a 62-45 win over Mendon when the final buzzer sounded on Saturday, Dec. 2. The game capped off a busy first week to the 2023-24 season for the two squads.
Originally, Union City, located in Branch County, and Mendon were supposed to play Tuesday, Dec 5.
However, after replying to a general email over the summer from Brandon Goebel – a senior group sales account executive for the Pistons – Union City athletic director Hayley Denney accepted an invitation to play a game at Little Caesars.
Denney was given the opportunity to choose who Union City wanted to play, and she reached out to Glen Samson, Mendon's AD, to see if the Hornets were interested. Samson readily agreed, and the game was ultimately bumped up a few days.
"We received an email from him (Goebel) with 10 different dates and once we decided, that day just worked out well for both schools, especially with it being on a weekend," Denney said.
"This is a pretty cool event because our teams and kids get to play their game on the NBA court, and the tickets to our game also allowed you to attend the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers game later that same night."
The Union City and Mendon junior high boys teams got to take the court against one another during halftime of the varsity contest.
In addition to receiving a complimentary Pistons item, Union City and Mendon fans also were allowed down on the floor after the Pistons/Cavaliers game to shoot a free throw.
Each school was required to sell at least 125 tickets to the game, and the response in each community was an overwhelming success.
"It was just a unique experience for our kids to play at such a big venue. Our boys spent the night before the game in Ypsilanti, and it was a great team bonding moment. There was great community support for both schools," Samson said.
Union City, a member of the Big 8 Conference, is currently 4-3 overall, including a 2-1 league mark. The Chargers, who are coached by Ben Chard, return a group of seasoned starters with league and District title aspirations after finishing 12-13 a year ago. A league championship would be the program's first since 2008.
Chard believes the thrill and experience of an early-season game played under the big lights at Little Caesars will help immensely with building momentum for the remainder of this season.
"The Little Caesars facility is outstanding. When you step onto the floor, it's very humbling. Our boys certainly embraced the opportunity. They did a great job being grown men and taking the game seriously," Chard said.
Union City overcame an early 15-4 deficit to gain a sizable halftime lead over Mendon. The Chargers dominated the boards and were able to shut the Hornets down defensively during the second half in pulling out the win.
Union City returns a pair of seniors and three juniors who all started for Chard at one time or another last season. The starting lineup includes junior Rick Austin (6-foot-2) running the Chargers' offense and junior Eli Payne (6-1) at shooting guard, along with senior forwards Jeremy Zehr (6-0) and Nathaniel Maurer (6-3) and junior center Aidan Decker (6-1).
"This is the first time in many years where I've had the luxury of having multiple options to put on the floor," Chard said. "Our seniors work extremely hard, and our junior class is extremely talented. We are very team-oriented with a lot of depth."
Four Union City players scored 10 or more points against Mendon.
Zehr relishes his role on the wing, creating space and shooting from the perimeter.
“Playing at Little Ceasars was insane. You have to play well off the get-go. You can't have slow starts. The way we played against Mendon in the final three quarters is how we play Union City basketball," said Zehr, who aspires to become a business entrepreneur.
"We have huge goals this season. Achieving those will require us to be mentally focused every day in practice, and that requires the seniors to be strong leaders."
Austin has played point guard the majority of his basketball career.
"I like being able to get my teammates open and making good passes,” said Austin, who hopes to continue playing basketball in college and eventually become a game warden.
“We tried to focus on rebounding during the week preparing for Mendon. We want to win the Big 8, Districts and move on to Regionals and see what happens from there."
Emmett Fraley, a former standout at Union City and 2013 graduate, has been a big asset to the program as one of Chard's varsity assistants. Fraley went on to play baseball and basketball at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, an NAIA school in Ohio.
"I played for Coach Chard my senior year. He put a lot of time into helping me, and I wanted to find a way to give back to Union City's program," Fraley said. “This team is capable of success, but you have to be mentally checked in every day. Once you can do that, then the sky is the limit.”
Mendon, 11-14 last winter, is looking to turn things around after joining a new conference.
After competing in the Southwest 10 Conference for several years, the Hornets joined the Southern Central Athletic Association's West division at the start of the current school year.
Mendon head coach Danny Schragg, a former prep basketball standout and previously the head coach at Burr Oak, knows what it takes to compete with the top teams in the SCAA.
The trip to Detroit from St. Joseph County has helped Schragg's Hornets grow closer.
"It was very exciting to be out there, have some fun and take it all in. It was a good overall experience. Union City had size on us and worked us over on the boards. We had some trouble scoring the ball, but we've learned a lot about our team since that game," Schragg said.
"As a team, we want to continue building that bond. We have 10 guys on our roster. It will take everyone playing together to win games. We have some talent, and I think we can win a lot of games in this league. We are young and play a lot of sophomores. I'm hoping down the road we can come together well as a team. We preach effort all the time, and are using our athleticism to our advantage."
Mendon has a pair of returning seniors in shooting guard Jack McCaw and post player Dylan Cupp. Schragg expects heavy contributions out of those two both on the court and in leadership roles.
"Jack is our top defensive player, but he can also fill the basket up offensively. Dylan has moved into a starting role and needs to score more. We need them to average double figures, along with one of our sophomores Ryder Gorham," Schragg said.
"The new conference is good for Mendon. We've gotten smaller over the last two or three years. It will be a great league with us facing schools more our own size. We will be competitive and match up better with these teams. This team is quick, and I think we can compete for a division title."
McCaw, a three-year letterwinner, plans to attend Western Michigan University to further his education in physical therapy and play lacrosse for the Broncos program in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association.
A standout tailback and leading rusher for Mendon's football team, McCaw helped lead the Hornets to the 2022 8-Player Division 2 Final at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
While McCaw has played in several big football games, he stated the experience of playing basketball in a big venue like Little Caesars Arena was equally rewarding.
"I've watched a lot of NBA games, but I never thought I'd actually get a chance to play in a game on a professional court," McCaw said.
"I'm just here to have some fun and help our team go as far as we can in my final season. There seems to be some good basketball teams and individual players in our conference."
But lacrosse always has been one of McCaw's favorite sports. He has played midfielder on The Bandits, a youth travel team out of the Portage/Kalamazoo area.
Through his participation in lacrosse, McCaw has struck up a strong friendship with Justin Shipp, the head men's lacrosse coach at WMU. Shipp officially has extended an invitation to McCaw to join the Broncos' varsity roster.
"I've played lacrosse for about seven years, and it's one of the sports I'm best at. I play midfielder, so I play offense and defense and I'm always running," McCaw said.
McCaw sees parallels in lacrosse that help him on the football field and basketball court as well.
"Lacrosse really helps me with my defense in both football and basketball. In lacrosse, you must have your stick down, be able to shuffle and keep your guy in front of you because if you don't they will score on you. It also helped me see the holes better to run through for a touchdown or a layup in basketball," McCaw said.
Cupp, who begins his third season on varsity, is one of the most versatile players on Mendon's roster.
"I can play any of the five positions on the floor. It just depends on who is in the game at that particular time for our team," Cupp said. "We're kind of a young team, so I'm working as hard as I can to help those guys to make them better and build the future of this program."
Cupp plans to attend Central Michigan University to study accounting.
"I learned a lot about basketball from alumni in open gyms. Playing at Little Caesars Arena was a big deal to us,” Cupp said. “Before the game, your legs are shaking when you walk down to the arena, but once you start its just like any other game."
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Union City junior guard Rick Austin (10) shoots over Mendon junior guard Mason Wilczynski (12) in the lane at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 2. (Middle) Union City varsity boys basketball coach Ben Chard coaches during the Chargers' game against Mendon. (Below) Mendon's Owen Gorham (20) applies defensive pressure on Union City's Eli Payne (3) during the first half. (Photos by Scott Hassinger.)