Performance: Mancelona's Eileene Naniseni

January 22, 2017

Eileene Naniseni
Mancelona senior – Basketball

The 6-foot-3 center has had a monumental impact on the Ironmen girls basketball program over the last four seasons, and recently reached an individual milestone as part of that team-elevating effort. Naniseni scored her 1,000th point (and 32 in the game) during her team’s 54-40 win over Fife Lake Forest Area on Jan. 11 to earn the Michigan Army National Guard “Performance of the Week.” 

Mancelona had lost 41 straight games before Naniseni took the court for the varsity for the first time and helped the Ironmen to a streak-breaking win in the 2013-14 season opener. Her team is 6-6 this winter, but Mancelona won only four games both last season and in 2014-15 and led during the fourth quarter of four of this winter’s losses. Naniseni is averaging 21.5 points, 13.9 rebounds and 5.6 blocked shots per game making 51 percent of her shots from the floor – she has five triple-doubles over the last four seasons including two this winter. She’s approaching the MHSAA record book list in rebounds with 878 over her career, and her 332 career blocked shots already rank 12th all-time. 

Naniseni – whose first name is pronounced “I-lee-nay” in nods to her maternal great-grandmother Eileene and her father’s Tongan roots – became the third in school history and first since 1996 to reach 1,000 points. She made the all-Ski Vally Conference first team last season after making the second team both of her first two seasons, and she also has earned all-league honors in volleyball and will compete again this spring in track & field running the 400 and participating in discus and high jump. She’s also built a 3.98 grade-point average in earning a basketball scholarship to Lake Superior State University, serving as a basketball team captain for three seasons in addition to providing leadership as well as part of National Honors Society, student council, the school’s peer leaders group and SAFE (Substance Abuse Free Environment).

Coach Ben Tarbutton said: “Eileene has been a great leader and captain for this basketball program. E is one of those players that every coach wishes everyone could be like on a team. Not because of her scoring or rebounding ability, but her determination in building this program up from multiple one or two-win seasons. This is why she has earned the leadership and captain role of the team over the last three years. This year has been one of the most fun years to coach. What is different about this year is we are beating teams that we have not beat in 10 years, and four of our six losses we were leading at one point in the fourth quarter. The only way this is possible is because of the senior group of Eileene Naniseni, Caitlin Ancel, and Jill Smigielski. … Without these three and the leadership of E, our season would not be where it is today. E is a leader in both academics and athletics. She is an individual that exemplifies what a student, athlete, and leader should look like for younger students to follow.

Performance Point: “We don’t normally get a lot of spectators for our games,” Naniseni said. “But the first thing I remember was more people in the stands, more in the student section than I’d seen the past three or four years playing. All my family and friends were there to watch me; that was awesome. And my teammates were so unselfish with the ball – I think I had to get 31 points (to get to 1,000), and whenever they’d get the ball they were thinking ‘E’. I think because it was so close, we wanted to push and get it that night.”

Transformer: “When I first came into (Mancelona) freshman year – I moved to this school in eighth grade (from Central Lake) – I wasn’t aware of how the varsity had been doing, and I didn’t even understand how much that (streak) was until we won our first game. Now that we look back on it, these last couple of years we haven’t been super successful, but I notice right now, I know I’m making an impact. I see it at the younger ages. We do these camps every year … and when I started out there would be two eighth graders or five seventh graders, but this past year the seventh and eighth grade teams have 38 together, and the JV has 12 (players). I want people to get more excited about girls basketball. I want Mancelona to keep growing and progressing. My sophomore year we had six or seven on the varsity team, so it was hard; this year we have nine girls, so that’s the most interest I’ve ever seen and it makes me excited.”

More to accomplish: “We wanted to win more games than in the past, and we’ve already achieved that. We recently beat Onaway and Joburg (Johannesburg-Lewiston), which we hadn’t beaten in 12-15 years. We want to beat them again and beat teams that we’ve been underdogs to for years and that no one expects us to beat. I can tell (from opponents) when we’re warming up that because they’re playing Mancelona, they think it’s going to be an easy win. But I want them to be surprised … because they always underestimate us.” 

Born to lead: “When I was a freshman, I had a really good art teacher who really was into leadership stuff, and the athletic director then let me go to a lot of leadership programs. Those definitely helped shape my leadership qualities and opened my eyes to what a leader should be, and I took a lot of notes. I try to be trustworthy and always try to work hard too – the captain of the team is expected to work hard – and if someone has questions they need to ask or if they need to confide in you, you can listen, but be strong too; you can’t be a pushover. When I was younger, I guess my confidence level, I didn’t realize how much that played a role in being a leader. … I want to build confidence in my teammates to show them that they are good players.”

Dr. Naniseni: “I would like to be a pediatric oncologist, or really anything in pediatrics because I love children. I think I’ll go into biology when I get up to Lake State; I’ve thought about being a teacher, but my family always has been medical-related, and the medical field fascinates me. I like how if (people) are hurting, you can give them something and make them better. That blows my mind sometimes.”

- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor

Every week during the 2016-17 school year, Second Half and the Michigan National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.

The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom or protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster. 

Previous 2016-17 honorees:
Jan. 12: Rory Anderson, Calumet hockey – Read
Dec. 15: Demetri Martin, Big Rapids basketball Read
Dec. 1: Rodney Hall, Detroit Cass Tech football Read
Nov. 24: Ally Cummings, Novi volleyball Read
Nov. 17: Chloe Idoni, Fenton volleyball Read
Nov. 10: Adelyn Ackley, Hart cross country Read
Nov. 3: Casey Kirkbride, Mattawan soccer – Read
Oct. 27: Colton Yesney, Negaunee cross country Read
Oct. 20: Varun Shanker, Midland Dow tennis Read
Oct. 13: Anne Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country – Read
Oct. 6: Shuaib Aljabaly, Coldwater cross country – Read
Sept. 29: Taylor Seaman, Brighton swimming & diving – Read
Sept. 22: Maggie Farrell, Battle Creek Lakeview cross country – Read
Sept. 15: Franki Strefling, Buchanan volleyball – Read
Sept. 8: Noah Jacobs, Corunna cross country – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Eileene Naniseni, dribbling, works to get past a defender. (Middle) Naniseni, middle, holds up with teammates a banner celebrating her 1,000th point after reaching the milestone Jan. 11 against Fife Lake Forest Area. (Photos by Joanie Moore/

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.