Newaygo Eyeing Another Playoff Run Led by Crew That's Been There

By Tom Kendra
Special for

December 2, 2021

NEWAYGO - Newaygo made a “Hoosiers”-like run to the Division 2 girls basketball championship game in April, but in its first game back Tuesday, the Lions found themselves trailing at halftime.

Time for seventh-year Newaygo coach Nate Thomasma to peel the paint off the locker room walls?


“We were in there about three minutes,” laughed Thomasma, who returns five of the eight players from last year’s magical team. “I just told them we need to do this, this and this and, if we do, then our shots will start falling.”

The Lions must have done those three things, as they outscored visiting Shelby 29-7 in the second half to turn a one-point halftime deficit into a comfortable 47-26 nonleague victory.

Over the final 16 minutes, the Lions looked like a team that could make another tournament run like last season’s, which didn’t end until a 52-32 Finals loss to Portland at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center.

Newaygo got the state’s attention in 2020 with a stunning upset of No. 5-ranked Grand Rapids Christian in the Regional Semifinals on a long-range, 3-pointer from then-sophomore Jaxi Long with six seconds remaining. That excitement was wiped away quickly, as the season ended abruptly the next day due to the COVID pandemic.

The “Little Lions” with their eight-player roster picked up right where they left off last postseason, knocking off perennial powers Grand Rapid West Catholic in Regionals and Detroit Country Day in the Semifinals at Van Andel Arena, before running out of gas in the championship game.

It was a ride to remember for the town of 2,471 residents, located about 30 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, which has just two state championships in school history – won by the back-to-back Class C girls basketball champions in 1985 and 1986.

Newaygo basketballThe Lions are back at it again with a 10-player roster, including five starters who were part of last year’s team – senior forwards Emmerson Goodin, Kayla Fisk and Lily Swinehart, senior guard Jaxi Long and junior guard Grace Painter.

“I really think we have a chance to go just as far,” said Long, whose older sister Jaylee was the star last year and is now getting increasing minutes on the varsity team as a freshman at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids. “We need to play great defense, rely on each other and trust our abilities.”

Jaxi Long showed the ability to heat up from long range, nailing five 3-pointers and scoring 16 of her game-high 24 points to key the second-half run and bring the excited student section in “The Jungle” to its feet. Long added six rebounds and three steals.

As good as Long was after halftime, it was the 5-foot-10 Goodin who kept Newaygo close in the first half, scoring 10 of her 15 points before the break. Goodin grabbed a game-high nine rebounds (putting her over the 500-career rebounds plateau), along with three blocked shots.

Long and Goodin are the captains and unquestioned leaders of this year’s team, which played elevated competition this summer after the Finals appearance, including a demanding week at Grand Valley State’s team camp.

“It felt like we had a target on our backs and that everyone was coming for us,” said Goodin, who was also one of the standouts on Newaygo’s volleyball team this fall, which won a District championship. “We learned how to fight back. It made us a lot better playing those bigger teams that we are not supposed to be able to beat.”

Goodin is the team’s top returning scorer (13 points per game) and rebounder (nine per game). Long averaged 11 points, five assists and four rebounds last year.

Fisk could be the “X factor” on this year’s Newaygo team, with her 5-10 height and long wingspan making her a disruptive force on defense, particularly on the point of the Lions’ halfcourt trap. Fisk finished Tuesday’s game with six points, six steals and four rebounds.

Thomasma, who received honorable mention Division 2 Coach of the Year recognition last season, knows he has a seasoned, veteran team this fall – with four of the team’s five starters being seniors – while all five players on the bench are underclassmen.

“He is positive, and his criticism is always constructive criticism,” said Goodin. “He gets after us, but he doesn’t just yell at us for no reason.”

Newaygo entered last year’s postseason unranked, before reeling off a series of upsets. The Lions finished 14-0 in the Central State Activities Association Gold and 21-2 overall, with both losses coming against Portland.

Newaygo celebrated its runner-up finish with a new banner for the gymnasium, which was unveiled before a football game Sept. 24. Since that time, Thomasma has tried not to look back.

“These girls are confident because of the success we’ve had the past two years,” said Thomasma, who is assisted by Dan Maki. “But this is a new season. We’re going to attack it and make our own legacy.”

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 Newaygo's Jaxi Long (13) directs her teammates during last season's Division 2 Semifinal win over Detroit Country Day. (Middle) Kayla Fisk brings the ball up court at the Breslin Center. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.) 

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.