Caro Closing In on Historic Title Claim

February 12, 2020

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

With three seniors who had played at least parts of the last two seasons on varsity, and a standout freshman making her debut, the Caro girls basketball team had plenty of reasons to make winning its league the goal this winter.

But with Reese coming off its 12th-straight conference title – and Caro seeking its first since 1985 – history was not on the Tigers’ side.

That’s changed quite a bit over the last month. Caro has set itself up to make history, with a chance to head into the Feb. 20 rematch with the Rockets already owning a share of the Greater Thumb Conference West championship.

The MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for January moved to 14-1 overall and 9-0 in league play Tuesday night, a far shout from the three games the Tigers won three seasons ago and 2-19 record they posted when that current trio of seniors were sophomores.

“I’ve learned more history this year (than ever before),” Riley said Monday, a day before picking up win 14 over Vassar. “That it’s only the third winning season in 24 years. And if we hold on to our first place in the league, it would be the first time in 35 years we’d win a league championship.

“It’s been a fun experience. My first two years we won five games combined, and last year we won 10. And if we win both games this week, we’ll match three years of wins in just 16 games this year. That’s kinda special.”

And pretty incredible.

Caro indeed finished 3-17 in 2016-17, with current senior forward Kaitlyn Arebalo a freshman on the varsity.

Now-senior point guard Ellie Hornbacher joined the mix for that 2-19 run in 2017-18 before an injury ended her season six weeks early. Classmate Raegan Ball also came up to varsity for a handful of games at the end of that winter, picking up some valuable experience.

While not necessarily historic, last season certainly was an improvement. The Tigers were at points 7-4 and 10-8 before settling in at 10-11 after losing their final three games – including 63-23 to Reese.

That has to be something of a distant memory at this point. Caro’s only loss this season came in its third game, to Sandusky (13-3). The Tigers handed the only defeat to GTC East leader Ubly (14-1) and also picked up a 23-point win over Croswell-Lexington (10-7) in their first game of calendar year 2020.

Two weeks later, Caro beat the Rockets 46-37.

“Before Reese, I just told them the pressure was still on Reese. They’re the 12-time defending league champs, and we don’t have anything to lose,” said Riley, who served as the junior varsity coach for five years before taking over the program prior to 2016-17. “That’s kinda been our chip on our shoulder all year. The girls came up with the slogan at the beginning of the year of ‘Respect all. Fear none.’ And that’s the mindset they’ve taken.”

Freshman Adelyn Moore is a player area teams likely will fear for the next three years. She’s Caro’s leading scorer (17 ppg), rebounder (10.6) and also averages the most steals (5.6) for a defensive effort giving up 34 points per game.

Arebalo adds 14.6 points and 7.4 rebounds game, and Ball has sharpened her shooting this winter and is averaging 8.4 points per game. Hornbacher, last year’s leading scorer, made a decision this season to become more of a distributor instead – and while she’s down a few points to 6.4 ppg, she’s grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game at 5-foot-6 and dishing a team high 4.4 assists per contest.

That defensive average is a definite difference this season – and has been one of Riley’s points of emphasis from the start. But just as impressive are the 54 points Caro is scoring on average – up from the low 30s of the last few winters.

Riley multiple times Monday threw complete credit to his players, who have bought into the heightened defense and cultivated the offense it has produced. Combine those improvements with strong senior leadership and a freshman standout, and ending the title drought hasn’t seemed at all far-fetched.

“It was just going to be how we blended together,” he said. “I wasn't sure necessarily how that would take off. But the seniors have mentored the other players, and those other players have had some pivotal roles for us.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2019-20

December: Hartland girls basketball - Report
Bridgman girls cross country - Report
Allegan boys tennis - Report
September: Ishpeming Westwood girls tennis - Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Caro's Adelyn Moore pulls up for a shot during her team's 46-37 win over Reese on Jan. 23. (Middle) This season's Caro girls basketball team. (Top photo courtesy of Sports Finest Magazine; middle courtesy of the Caro girls basketball program.)

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.