Seniors Have St Mary on Verge Again

March 12, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD – Averi Bebble was a water girl when Gaylord St. Mary reached the MHSAA Class D Girls Basketball Quarterfinals in 2012 and 2013.

“That was exciting,” Bebble said, “just as exciting as it is now.”

Now, Bebble is a senior and the Snowbirds are in the Quarterfinals again – for the fourth time in eight years and the second time since Bebble has been on varsity.

This time Bebble is hoping St. Mary (23-1) can reverse a trend when it faces Chassell (24-1) on Tuesday at Sault Ste. Marie

“Every year we‘ve been in the Quarterfinals we’ve lost by one or two points,” she said. “We’re excited to get back and try to beat Chassell.”

The Snowbirds lost by two points to Crystal Falls Forest Park in 2012, by two to Climax-Scotts in 2013 and by one to Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in 2016.

Bebble and Alex Hunter were starters on the 2016 squad. And now the best friends are the catalysts of a senior-driven team that’s rattled off 23 consecutive wins after a season-opening setback at Clare.

Four seniors start for the Snowbirds.

“That’s huge,” first-year head coach Pat Schultz said. “We have a lot of experience where it matters – handling the ball. We have guards that can control the game for us.”

The 5-foot-3 Hunter and the 5-5-Bebble are joined by 5-4 junior Olivea Jeffers in a three-guard lineup. Hunter was an Associated Press first-team all-state pick a year ago. The tallest starters are 5-7 Maggie Schultz and improving 5-8 center Emily Myler.

To compensate for lack of size, the Snowbirds like to press and run – and then run some more.

“We like to get out in transition, push the tempo,” Schultz said. “Our kids are in good shape. We can get up and down the floor. Plus, we can defend.”

Those are the hallmarks of this team, which is outscoring the opposition by an average of 32 points (61-29). Only two teams, Rudyard and Cedarville, scored more than 50 points, and St. Mary won those two Regional games by 22 and 10 points, respectively.

The Snowbirds played a schedule that included Class B Clare (13-9), Class C Lake City (15-7) and Traverse City St. Francis (17-4) and Class D Bellaire (21-3), Rogers City (18-5) and Cedarville (20-4), which handed Hillman its lone regular-season loss.

After the loss to Clare – “We’d like to have that one back,” Schultz said – the Snowbirds met all challenges.

“We came together as a team around January,” Hunter said. ”Everyone focused on finding their role and realizing what that role was, no matter how big or small.”

By January, the Snowbirds were locked in. St. Mary beat Bellaire, also a Class D quarterfinalist, twice to capture the Ski Valley Conference title.

Bellaire, whose only other loss was to Class B Kalkaska, edged Rogers City in double overtime to claim last week’s Regional. The Snowbirds, meanwhile, defeated Rogers City by 35 in early January to start an impressive five-week run that also included wins over Bellaire (41-39 and 38-32), Lake City (60-35) and St. Francis (41-29). St. Francis, which played in the Class C Final two years ago, won the Lake Michigan Conference this winter.

That five-week window opened some eyes.

“We started to believe we might have something in January,” Schultz said. “But when we went to St. Francis, which is a perennially strong program, and held them to 29 points, well, we walked out of that gym with a little swag that night. I think the girls felt if we can play like this we can play with anyone in Class D.”

Schultz said he can go nine deep in his rotation – juniors Megan Loffer and Emma Jo Cherwinski are usually the first two off the bench – but it’s Hunter and Bebble who set the tone.

Hunter is averaging 13.7 points, 5.4 assists and 3.5 steals a game. She’s shooting 51 percent on two-pointers, 44 percent on three-pointers.

“She’s a great shooter, a pure shooter,” Schultz said. “You give her an open shot and she’s as automatic as any girl.

“She’s a hard worker, too, a disciplined kid.”

Her infectious upbeat attitude rubs off on her teammates.

“Alex is awesome to play with,” Bebble added. “She’s been one of the most committed (players) all the way through school. She’s makes the rest of the team better.”

Hunter’s scoring average is down from a year ago, but that’s more by design as St. Mary has spread the points around.

“I had a super strong season last year, but I realized what this team needs from me isn’t always scoring 20 points a game,” Hunter said. “I’m not scoring as much, but I definitely feel I’ve (contributed more) in other ways to help the team. It’s whatever the team needs each game, whether it be assists, defense, drawing defenders to the corner (to open up the offense).”

Hunter is fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,260 points. She was fourth in the state a year ago in three-point shooting (46 percent) and is 16th all-time statewide in assists (493) and 35th in steals (375). She’s only missed one game in four years.

Bebble’s scoring average is up as she’s elevated her game. The four-year varsity veteran is averaging 11.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.7 steals and 3.6 assists. She scored a career-high 26 points in the Regional Final.

“Averi’s a unique talent,” Schultz said. “She’s not a pure shooter like Alex, but she is so quick. She can be a nightmare (for opponents).”

Schultz put the ball in Bebble’s hands against Cedarville, utilizing clear-outs to take advantage of her quickness in space. Hunter added 14 in the win.

Bebble also stars on the defensive end.

“She can lock down on defense,” Schultz said. “She’s the definition of a pestering defender. You can’t get rid of her.”

Bebble and Hunter have been playing basketball together since second grade.

“She’s stepped up and had an awesome year,” Hunter said. “It’s all come together for her. She’s super quick, pushes the ball, gets to the rim on anyone – and plays defense on anyone.”

The two play off each other, too.

“I know where Alex is going to be on the court, and she knows where I’m going to be,” Bebble said. “It’s easy between us. We’re always in sync with each other.”

Bebble’s sister, Jada, was on the Quarterfinal teams when Averi was the water girl. Her cousin, Kari Borowiak, was the star player then. Borowiak is now an NAIA All-American at Concordia – she was the only NAIA player to average 20 points and 5.5 assists this season – and she still follows the Snowbirds. Borowiak quickly retweeted a Gaylord Herald Times tweet about Bebble’s efforts against Cedarville.

It’s been quite a first year for Schultz, who formerly coached the junior varsity and was an assistant to Dan Smith the last two seasons. Schultz also coaches the school’s volleyball and softball varsity teams.

“I know these girls,” he said. “This group makes it easy.  A lot of people could have come in this year and looked good coaching because this team gets it. I make some adjustments, motivate, and chew on them a little when they need it, but for the most part they make the adjustments that most coaches have to make. They understand and that’s because they’ve played so much basketball, including travel ball. They can auto-correct really well.”

Myler’s developing presence inside, and her ability to guard bigger opponents, has helped alleviate a concern there.

“We’re not a super tall team, but we have posts who work hard,” Hunter said. “Heart over height.”

That will be put to the test Tuesday against a talented and taller Chassell squad that won its first Regional in school history by overcoming a 14-point deficit to beat Bark River-Harris in overtime.

“Chassell’s a great team,” Hunter said. “Anyone left at this point is tough competition. We’re excited for the chance.”

Schultz agreed.

“They’re big, and they’re good,” he said of the Panthers. “We don’t want to allow it to become a half-court game.

“This time of year you have to play well, and you have to have a little luck.”

Who will have that combination Tuesday?

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Gaylord St. Mary’s Averi Bebble drives to the hoop during Thursday’s District Final win over Cedarville. (Middle) The Snowbirds’ Alex Hunter finds an opening to the lane during the 61-51 win. (Photos courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times.)

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.