New-Look Kent City Blazing Same Successful Playoff Path

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 7, 2022

Taryn Preston doesn’t see why the “in-between” year can’t be the magical year when Kent City wins its first MHSAA Finals girls basketball championship.

Preston scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds as the Eagles stayed unbeaten with a hard-earned 36-33 victory over host Morley Stanwood in Friday’s Division 3 District Final.

“Our experience pulls us through in games like this,” explained Preston, one of just two seniors, along with post Emma Geers.

“We are a different team than last year, but everyone knows what they have to do when they step on the floor, and that’s really important.”

Last year, Kent City made it all the way to the Finals at the Breslin Center before losing to top-ranked Grass Lake 52-50 in the championship game.

Most outsiders expected a letdown this winter as the Eagles graduated two of the state’s best 3-point shooters in Kenzie Bowers (Illinois State) and Jenna Harrison (Siena Heights), and the team’s two best players this year are underclassmen – sophomore Maddie Geers and junior Lexie Bowers.

Adding to the question marks, 12-year head coach Scott Carlson resigned in October and took an assistant coaching job at Western Michigan University, turning the reins over to his former player and five-year junior varsity coach Aleah Holcomb, who is just 26 years old.

The final hurdle was injuries, as both of the team’s seniors missed extended time with injuries – Emma Geers six weeks with a knee injury and Preston three weeks with an Achilles strain.

Despite all of that, the Eagles have found a way to win every game to maintain their lofty No. 2 state ranking, winning their fifth-straight Central States Activities Association Silver title and now their fifth-straight District title.

Kent City (22-0) will face Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (17-4) in Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. Division 3 Regional opener at Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian.

“I am amazed by the determination and drive of these girls – that never changes,” said Holcomb, who is assisted by Mikayla Loew, another former Kent City player. “We have a great system in place here. We just had to tweak a few things, the way we do every year, and these girls have made it an easy transition.”

Kent City basketballHolcomb’s calm sideline demeanor and respect for her players has helped with the coaching transition, to be sure.

Holcomb and her team kept their cool in Friday’s District title game, even after Morley tied the game at 32 with four minutes remaining, bringing the upset-minded home crowd to its feet.

The first-year coach actually went to a four-corners offense, keeping the ball away from the Mohawks and eventually drawing fouls. The Eagles made 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch to pull out the win.

“We were in foul trouble, so the more time we could spend on offense, the better,” explained Holcomb. “I believe in our girls’ ability to handle the ball. It was a risky call, but it worked out.”

Kent City made a statement during the first month of this season, registering a huge, season-opening road win at Muskegon, then downing Ada Forest Hills Eastern and Grand Rapids Christian to capture the Cornerstone University Holiday Tournament Gold division title. Maddie Geers won the tournament Most Valuable Player honor.

While Carlson’s KC teams were known statewide for their 3-point shooting prowess, this year’s team is more diverse in its attack.

Maddie Geers and Bowers are excellent at slashing to the basket, while the senior duo of Emma Geers and Preston have proven their toughness inside.

“We can still knock down the 3s, but we revolve more around our inside game,” said Holcomb, who played college basketball at Davenport University in Grand Rapids. “Having girls that can get inside and make tough shots is just another asset that we have on this team.”

One of those girls is Preston, a three-sport athlete who is the star on her other two teams and more of a role player on the basketball court.

Preston, who is near the top of her class academically, is an all-state hurdler who signed in December with Cornerstone University, where she will run track and study nursing. She was also the leading hitter for the Eagles’ volleyball team, averaging 4.5 kills per game last fall.

She credits her teammates with helping her improve on the hardcourt.

“The girls on the basketball team have pushed me, and this year I’m a lot more confident in myself,” said Preston. “I don’t have a sister of my own, but I consider every single one of them to be a sister.”

Preston is a versatile player who is willing to do all of the little things the team needs to win, according to Holcomb.

The senior nailed two crucial 3-pointers Friday night, and when the team went cold from downtown, she drove to the basket and made a pair of key buckets. Kent City had one of its poorest shooting nights of the year, making just 4-of-25 shots from behind the arc.

Preston knows the team will have to shoot better if it hopes to win another Regional title – but she believes in her team.

“We are very versatile this year, so we can overcome a bad shooting night,” Preston said. “We have the skills and we have the mindset, so I really believe that we can get back (to the Breslin).”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Kent City celebrates its Division 3 District title win Friday against Morley Stanwood. (Middle) Lexie Bowers (23) begins making her move toward the basket. (Photos courtesy of the Kent City 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.