Comstock 'Stampedes' to Elusive Title

By Pam Shebest
Special for

February 21, 2017

COMSTOCK — It took almost a quarter century, but the Comstock girls finally put their mark on the basketball banner hanging in their gym.

They have to share the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Red title with Buchanan, but that is OK with them.

“It’s been (24 years) since Comstock girls won conference,” junior Ahkyla Blakely said. “I’m very excited. We’ll get our year up on the banner.”

With a junior and three sophomores among the starting five, one might have thought the team was in a rebuilding season.

But when it comes to experience, there is nothing young about this team.

The Colts have a 17-2 overall record, 9-1 in the conference.

The team may be young, but the girls grew up playing together in the youth program called “The Stampede” that started when the current sophomores were in fourth grade and with coaches that included Justin Ansel, the girls varsity coach for the last five years.

“Our junior class started when they were in fifth grade, so they grew up together with their class,” Ansel said. “Last year, the combination of the two classes, we had a whole year of playing together.”

This year, that experience is paying rewards.

Sophomore Daisy Ansel leads the Colts, averaging 15.2 points per game, followed by junior Blakely at 12.4 and sophomore Caylin Lopez at nine.

Ansel and Lopez also started last year as freshmen.

Abby House, who was pulled up from the junior varsity team midway through last season, is the other sophomore starter along with Blakely and senior Miranda Cannon.

Friends & Family

Having her dad as a coach can be both good and bad, Daisy Ansel said.

“It’s challenging at times, but it makes me better because he pushes me harder as an individual player,” she said.

“At home we talk about basketball all the time. It’s probably brought us together more as a family.”

Her brother, Seth, is a junior on the boys varsity basketball team.

Justin Ansel said the day his daughter does not feel comfortable with him as her coach is the day he will step down – as tough as that would be.

“We do have a relationship that at the end of every season I tell her if you don’t want me to coach any more, I’ll gladly step away and be a parent in the stands and support you in that respect,” he said.

“Each year, she’s always wanted me to be her coach. That feels good.”

He added that it is not just her he would miss coaching.

“You develop a relationship since fourth grade with these girls, and it’s not just your daughter,” he said. “I feel like I have a bunch of daughters out there.”

Senior Arreona Blakely said the turning point in the season was defeating Buchanan, 54-33, on Feb. 3.

The Colts lost to the Bucks 37-33 the month before.

“(Our win) was probably our best game, communication and defense-wise,” Blakely said.

She has no problem with her younger sister starting while she waits for the nod.

“I’m used to it,” the senior said. “It’s more I know my position, which is to be a leader and a communicator versus being the one out there scoring points. She’s more the athletic one versus me.

“I’m not really that athletic like her, but I’m good to support her. When she’s going through a rough time, I’m the only one who really knows how to pick her back up, spirit-wise, and get her going.”

Ahkyla Blakely said two things have helped the team improve from its 13 wins last year.

“It’s conditioning and practice,” she said. “Our coach makes us run these Sweet 16s every practice, and we’ve got to try to beat a time. He pushes us.

“We’ve been waiting for (last year’s) freshmen to come up, and now they’re sophomores and we’ve all been together for a long time. It feels like family.”

Daisy Ansel said the girls have a connection.

“We know who our shooters are, who we’re trying to get open,” she said. “We know all the plays. We have over 10 plays we can run against any team, and we all know them.

“When we’re out there together, we all just click like in middle school, and outside of basketball we get along.”

Ansel is a captain along with the Blakely sisters.

“Normally, sophomores aren’t captains, but going through travel ball has taught me so much, like the communication part of basketball,” Ansel said.

“I used to think you had to work the hardest and had to win everything, but now you’ve got to pump up everybody on your team to have the strongest practice. I work on giving more energy and communication in practice because it plays a bigger part than you think on the basketball court.”

House is a five-sport athlete, playing volleyball and golf in the fall, basketball and bowling in the winter and softball in the spring.

“It’s pretty tough between homework and all the practices and games, but I try to make it work,” she said. “Coaches work with me a lot.”

She said it is an advantage to have been coached by Justin Ansel on the Stampede team.

“He’s been our coach since we were little, so we know what he wants us to do,” she said. “He challenges us more because he knows what we can do.”

This season, “We’re generating a lot more offense. We’re all playing together as one team instead of as individuals, and our defense has tremendously improved since last year.”

Sophomore Madelyn Caswell is the tallest on the team at 5-foot-9, but “with my lankiness, my coach says I’m about 5-11,” she said, laughing.

Playing her first year on varsity, “The competitiveness is a lot more intense,” she said. “We have big goals and working to get there is a lot more competitive, and we’re a lot more driven than we were on jayvee.”

More to achieve

Comstock will host an MHSAA Class B District next week where it could face perennial power and reigning Class B champion Marshall in the second game.

“We play Parchment in the first round and if we win that, Marshall in the finals,” Justin Ansel said. “Marshall is very tough. We’re going to have to be fundamentally strong on both ends of the floor.

“Last year we got to Marshall in the first game. Four out of my five years (coaching Comstock), Marshall has ended my season.”

But the team entered this winter with high aspirations, and already has made good on making history.

“It’s something we talked about, but it wasn’t something we imagined doing,” Caswell said. “Throughout the season we realized we could make (winning conference) more of a reality.”

Marissa Vandyk is the other senior on the team. Juniors are Kierra Lovelace and Kaylee Gilley.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Comstock sophomore Caylin Lopez guards a Parchment ball handler this season. (Middle top) Comstock coach Justin Ansel and sophomore Daisy Ansel. (Middle below) Comstock junior Ahkyla Blakely and senior Arreona Blakely. (Below) Sophomore Madelyn Caswell (40) works to defend a shot. (Action photos courtesy of the Comstock girls basketball program; head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.