New Cast Maintaining Marian's Success

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 28, 2016

BLOOMFIELD HILLS – When word leaked out last April that sisters Bailey and Samantha Thomas would be moving to Nevada and not returning to Bloomfield Hills Marian for the 2015-16 school year, reporters and basketball fans alike did a quick math equation.

Marian would graduate three seniors who started plus its top reserve and, with this news, would lose its top six players from a team that won the program’s second consecutive Class A title.

Everyone outside of Marian anticipated a changing of the guard. No longer would the Mustangs be the team to beat in the Detroit Catholic League, and any thoughts of a third consecutive title were dismissed.

That’s not all. Senior McKenna Landis, who would have been a three-year varsity player and the starting point guard, suffered a season-ending knee ligament injury in a non-basketball incident.

Mary Cicerone is in her 33rd season as head coach, and she’s uncertain whether she’s entered a season before where experience, and the amount of seniors, was at such a premium. 

But as far as assessing coaches, Cicerone is at the top in maintaining a competitive edge, and thus, a positive outlook.

“Most of my players play more than one sport,” Cicerone said. “Many (five) play soccer. Another plays volleyball. For the first time, basketball is second fiddle to most of my players.

“We’re going to show up. I thought we’d be competitive. What are we, 9-3 now? I thought we should be 10-2. I’m competitive. I have some good athletes. We’re figuring out what they’re good at.”

Marian is 9-2 and, at 6-1, in first place in the league’s Central Division. Its lone division loss was at Warren Regina, 35-33, on a shot at the buzzer. Few would have thought this before the season but, at this point, Marian is the favorite to win the league title. Should the Mustangs win the title, it would be Cicerone’s 13th.

If it happens, it’s not a fluke. Like all of Cicerone’s teams, this one plays defense – and few teams, at least in Metro Detroit, play defense with more intensity than Marian.

Take the Regina game as an example. Marian trailed by 11 points late in the third quarter. The Mustangs forced 10 turnovers in the fourth quarter and nearly shocked the Saddlelites.

Maria Hickey and Elizabeth Grobbel are the only seniors on the team and quite possibly Cicerone’s hardest workers.

Hickey said it’s up to her and Grobbel to set an example for the younger players. Last season they earned valuable experience during and more so in practice going against the state’s best.

“We returned four players,” Hickey said. “We didn’t know McKenna would be out. We were very underestimated. We adjusted well. We had a target on our back. Everyone wants to say they beat the defending state champs.

“Defense has to be above the offense. Defense takes up 60, 70 percent of our practices. Maybe more. We press some. Our favorite is the man-to-man, full court. We never play zone. (Cicerone) laughs when we bring it up. We also run the 1-2-2 zone press. We call it the mustang. It’s risky. When it works, it works great. It changes things up.

“Experience? Every player has experience in the program. But not everyone has experience playing this type of defense.”

This team doesn’t have a go-to player. Grobbel, a 6-1 forward, might be the team’s top 3-point shooter. Lauren Montalbano, a 5-5 junior, is one of the best at going to the basket. And at point guard, Olivia Moore is a fine ball handler, but she’s a freshman still gaining varsity experience. Uche Ike, a 5-11 sophomore, is a strong and athletic post player but didn’t start playing basketball until the eighth grade and is still learning the fundamentals.

“I told the kids in the beginning that we’re not going to win because we’re great basketball players,” Cicerone said. “It’s our defense that will carry us. Many of them don’t pick up a basketball until November. I ask them, why shoot? You haven’t touched a basketball in months.”

Cicerone is all for her players to play other sports. And it’s these other sports that are their main ones. But it does try her patience when some compete in travel leagues or AAU events so much so they miss a practice here or there, and a game now and then.

On the other side of the coin, playing the other sports does contribute to their athleticism. For a team like Marian that relies heavily on defense, having good, all-around athletes is a plus.

Cicerone knows her team will have a challenge competing with Class A powers like Saginaw Heritage and Southfield-Lathrup in the MHSAA Tournament. But it’s not a stretch to forecast the Mustangs winning another league title, possibly a District title, and pulling off an upset in the Regionals.

Whatever the opposition, no matter how talented they are, Cicerone refuses to give in. Marian has won six MHSAA titles with her on the bench, and a coach doesn’t win that many by taking anything for granted.

“I’ve had my day in the sun,” Cicerone said. “I go up and down with my team. I don’t expect much on offense. But we can play defense.

“We’re not going to do what we’re not good at. We want them to do the things they are good at."

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Marian's Uche Ike works to move the ball upcourt against Farmington Hills Mercy. (Middle) Hannah Redoute works to corral a loose ball. (Below) Elizabeth Grobbel moves to the basket with a pair of Mercy players defending. (Photos courtesy of the Bloomfield Hills Marian athletic department.)

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.