Classic Finish Delivers Statewide Stardom

March 15, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GRAND RAPIDS – Michigan, meet Bree Salenbien – the Adrian Lenawee Christian freshman who stands as tall as a center, plays like a guard, and made a shot Thursday that most seniors never get a chance to launch.

The 6-foot-2 Cougars standout instantly may have bought herself three more years of statewide expectations by draining the winner in her team’s 46-44 Class D Semifinal overtime win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.

But if her full-game performance at Van Noord Arena was an indication, she’ll be up for all of them.

Salenbien’s pull-up jumper from just inside the free throw line with four seconds to play gave her the last of 16 points – and sent her team to its first MHSAA championship game since 2010.

Lenawee Christian (25-1) will face Chassell at 10 a.m. Saturday with a first girls basketball title in school history on the line – and another chance to show a statewide audience more of this phenom and her teammates from the southeastern corner.

“It’s really fun. But I think the whole team is showing the state who we are, not just me,” Salenbien said. “We’ve battled through so many games this year. That one loss helped us this year not want to feel that way again, to battle through everything.

“We knew we’d have to fight like that to the end.”

That lone defeat, by one to Class A Monroe on Jan. 9, clearly was a learning experience for a team with lots of talent but only one senior.

But it will be buried by the memories Salenbien and her teammates continue to make this weekend and the next few years to come.

She finished with eight rebounds, four assists, three blocks and six steals to go with those 16 points against a Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart team that was undefeated entering the night and playing in its third straight Semifinals. Salenbien also had to contend at times with Irish 6-foot all-stater Sophia Ruggles, who finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.

The teams were deadlocked 13 times, and the lead changed 11. Only six points were scored during overtime – two free throws by Ruggles 27 seconds in, followed by two by Salenbien with 1:05 to play and then her game-winner at the end.

Salenbien actually missed a free throw with 12 seconds left in regulation that would’ve given her team a one-point lead. But, as Sacred Heart coach Damon Brown noted, the freshman plays well beyond her years – and was about to show it again.

“She doesn’t always,” said Dani’s father and Lenawee Christian coach, Jamie Salenbien. “But when she does, it’s because of the time she’s put in. All of the kids on this team are committed to fundamentals, the coaching staff preaches it and pushes it, and they’ve bought into it and put a lot of time in when no one was there. But she has a lot of athletic gifts God gave her, and she’s using them now at the young age of 14.

“I’m proud of her hanging tough when she could’ve folded, after missing that free throw especially.”

Sophomore guard Dani Salenbien, Bree’s sister and Jamie’s daughter as well, added 11 points and four blocks.

Lenawee Christian’s “gamers,” as Jamie Salenbien called them, contended with a Sacred Heart lineup returning all five starters from last year’s run. Junior guard Scout Nelson added 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, senior Grace Reetz had five steals and five points – including a late 3-pointer that nearly became the game winner – and seniors Megan Nowak and Hadyn Terwilliger finished with five points and seven rebounds, respectively.

Certainly unexpected, Sacred Heart’s full starting lineup and one senior sub entered the postgame press conference full of smiles and laughter.

The Irish (25-1) went a combined 94-10 over the last four seasons, and wins came off the court as well as on. Brown talked about how he nearly left coaching after the 2013-14 season and the death of his wife, Sacred Heart boys basketball coach Keisha Brown, after her fight with cancer. Last season, the Irish ended their tournament run in the Semifinals on March 16 – three days before the death of Haydn Terwilliger’s mother Denise, who also fought cancer.

“We’ve been through these last four years together, and I think that’s why we’re so happy with each other,” Brown said. “From what we’ve been through, this game in no shape or form defines what this team has been through. We’ve held hands through the darkest times. … What we have here is more important than any score.”

And Reetz took the opportunity to lighten the mood one last time.

“This is kind’ve how our team is,” she said. “We laugh about everything. Sophie had 999 career points. It’s sad, but it’s just kinda humorous. (Ruggles actually finished her career with exactly 1,000.)

“I just feel like we all feel we couldn’t have done anything else out there. It’s just kinda a toss-up. We tried our best, we wanted a state title, but being together is enough for us.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Bree Salenbien, right, hugs her sister Dani after making the game-winning shot in Thursday’s second Class D Semifinal. (Middle) Bree Salenbien pops a shot as Sophia Ruggles (15), Hadyn Terwilliger (13) and Megan Nowak (4) surround her.

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.