Manistee Catholic Central's Excellence Bolstered by Experience

By Tom Spencer
Special for

January 6, 2023

Playing three guards happens probably most at the high school level, but still may be considered an uncommon lineup. 

And it’s unlikely more than one Michigan high school girls basketball team can boast of having all three guards on the court playing at least their fifth seasons at the varsity level.

Manistee Catholic Central can. And these guards, playing more like a family as some say, are ready to undo the feeling of last year’s season-ending loss to Brethren in the District Semifinal.

Due to the school’s tiny enrollment, MCC is allowed under MHSAA rules to have seventh and eighth graders on the roster as they’ve had for some time. So when the Sabres gather around the seniors including Leah Stickney, Kaylyn Johnson, Emily Miller, Abbey Logan and Ashley VanAelst during their pregame warm-up, they fire up around a lot of experience.

MCC went 14-5 last year and shared the West Michigan D League championship. They’re off to a 7-2 start as they host Walkerville tonight. Both losses this season were by just one point.

VanAelst is one of the guards and captains in the starting lineup. She joined the Sabres late in her in eighth grade season.

“I’ve grown up with this team,” VanAelst said. “They have been (there) for me throughout everything.  

“I see them as the best family I could ever have,” she continued. “I love to call them my family.” 

Being so much a part of each other’s lives, including school days, has bode well for the Sabres, VanAelst said.

“We have such a good bonding aspect,” she said. “When we’re on the court, we forget about all of our troubles and we come together.  

“I like when we’re on the court, we’re all one.”

Stickney, a 5-foot-5 senior guard, is the team’s leading rebounder. She regularly starts in the three-guard formation with VanAelst and junior Grace Kidd. Johnson, the team’s leading scorer at 12.2 points per game, starts in the post.

MCC coach Todd Erickson talks things over with Leah Stickney (3). Stickney, Johnson, Kidd, and junior Elizabeth Logan all played on the varsity team prior to entering the high school. The experienced lineup has coach Todd Erickson looking for an extended postseason run.

“They got the court time over the year to play at this level,” Erickson said. “We’ve been waiting for this team to come into their own.  

“We’re not where we think we can be yet.”

The Sabres are moving south to Walkerville to start the postseason this year. They will vie for the District title there with Walkerville, Baldwin, Mason County Eastern, McBain Northern Michigan Christian and Pentwater. 

MCC picked up a 44-18 win this week over Pentwater, a potential District opponent.

Summer camps in Petoskey and Gaylord, along with a summer YMCA league in Traverse City, helped the Sabres prepare for this season. VanAelst was one of the players leading the charge.

“I wanted to do something great,” VanAelst said. “I just really wanted to make myself better and be a leader out on the court and help my teammates along the way.  

“It was more a team building aspect and how we can work together and become a better team,” she continued. “Instead of working on ourselves individually, we worked together.”

Over the years, Erickson’s teams have won a dozen District championships and three Regionals. His Sabers advanced to the Semifinals in 1999 before falling to eventual Class D champion Portland St. Patrick. The Sabres had only eight players on that roster.

Erickson took over the Sabers girls program during the middle of the 1992 season when the head coach at the time suddenly stepped down. Erickson coached both varsity and JV for the remainder of the year.

He left Manistee Catholic briefly to coach Manistee High for two seasons, posting a combined 45-3 record there with two District titles and a Regional championship. He later returned to Catholic Central after taking a year off.

Last winter, his players and the school honored Erickson for reaching the 400-win milestone.

With this postseason in mind, Erickson now has his team working on rebounding and free throw shooting.

“Our rebounding has to change,” Erickson. “When you’ve got three guards leading your rebounding, we have a problem.

“There is no reason for a 5-foot-5 guard leading your rebounding.”

Erickson noted his players responded to the rebounding focus in their latest win. And, he loves the growth in his guards.

Ashley VanAelst (11) considers her options on offense against Central Lake.“All three of those guards — Leah, Ashley and Grace — the have learned to play really well together,” he said. “Every time they play, they are getting stronger and stronger to each other. 

“They look out for each other on the floor,” he went on. “They always know where the other two are.”

The Sabres also improved their free throw shooting in the win over Pentwater, especially Johnson.

“Kaylin took it to heart,” Erickson said. “She turned around to me at the end and she goes, ‘Coach, I was 4 for 4 at the free throw line.’  

“I said, ‘That’s where you should be, 3-for-4 or 4-for-4.’”

Erickson’s coaching has spanned five decades, and he’s not the only coach in his family. His wife Jan has done some coaching. His daughters, Kelly and Katie, currently serve as assistant coaches for St. Joseph Our Lady of the Lake Catholic and Traverse City St. Francis, respectively.

The Sabres’ success has not gone unnoticed. Among those taking note is Mike Kanitz, who serves now as assistant coach at St. Francis with Katie Erickson.  

Kanitz coached against Manistee Catholic when he was the head coach at Traverse City Christian. The Gladiators also saw the Sabres at camp and the YMCA league this summer.

“Coach (Todd) Erickson takes the talent that he has each year and makes them more talented,” Kanitz said. “He does a great job of developing teams.

“His teams are always competitive.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Manistee Catholic Central’s Kaylyn Johnson lines up for a free throw. (Middle) MCC coach Todd Erickson talks things over with Leah Stickney (3). (Below) Ashley VanAelst (11) considers her options on offense against Central Lake. (Photos by Mitch Vosburg/Manistee News Advocate.)

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.