Still #1: Heritage Lands 2nd Straight Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 23, 2019

GRAND RAPIDS – Not often is the reigning champion the hunter and not the hunted. But that’s how the Saginaw Heritage girls basketball approached this season. 

With the graduation of some key members from the 2018 Class A title team, the Hawks felt they were being overlooked.

On Saturday, they re-established themselves as the top team among the state’s largest schools, now classified as Division 1. 

Behind a stifling defense, Heritage earned a second straight MHSAA title by defeating top-ranked Southfield Arts & Technology 55-40 at Van Noord Arena on the campus of Calvin College.

“If anything, we kind of felt underestimated, like a lot of people didn’t think we were going to get right back,” Heritage senior Shine Strickland-Gills said. “We lost two players, and they scored a lot … and it didn’t look like we had much coming in through the tunnel after them, so they didn’t really think we were going to go back again. But we wanted to prove them all wrong, and our whole thing was to stick together. Our end goal, everybody’s end goal, was to play in the last game and win. We just knew what we had to do, and we made sure that got done.” 

It was the third MHSAA championship for the Hawks (25-2), and it seemed fitting it was this senior class that spearheaded these last two. Strickland-Gills and classmates Moira Joiner and Mallory McCartney have been playing together for more than a decade, and had predicted they could accomplish this before they got into high school. 

“They were eighth graders the last time we were in a Final Four, and they all cut school and came down to the Breslin Center and watched Heritage,” Hawks coach Vonnie DeLong said. “We lost that day, and they told me that day, ‘We’re getting back here and we’re winning it, Coach.’ They made good on their promise to me.” 

Heritage looked like a team that knew it was supposed to be playing in Saturday’s moment, taking control early and remaining calm and composed while clinically finishing it off.  

The Hawks were hitting 50 percent of their 3-pointers at one point in the third quarter, and finished the game with 19 assists on 20 made baskets. Joiner led the way with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, nearly matching the triple double she had in Friday’s Semifinal against Wayne Memorial. Strickland-Gills added 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists and six blocks, while junior Keyonie Champion had 12 points. McCartney added seven points, five rebounds and five assists. 

“Having them be seniors, not just seniors, but having been in this game before – having been in these big games is huge,” DeLong said. “Today they just knew. I talked to them this morning and told them, ‘This is it, last time you’re ever going to play together – you're going to keep playing, but not together – and this is the last chance you got. I’m going to tell you right now, last game senior year, if you can go out a winner, that’s absolutely the way you want to go.’” 

While Heritage didn’t have much trouble settling in, the Hawks made it hard for the Warriors (24-2) to do so, especially on the offensive end. They played zone and closed down on everything in the paint, forcing Southfield A&T into its worst offensive performance of the season.  

It was only the second time all year the Warriors – who shot 16 of 47 (34 percent) from the field – were held below 50 points. The other time was a 45-43 loss to Heritage in the second game of the season. 

“They were in a zone, and the zone packed it in a little bit, and we were struggling to find some gaps to attack,” Southfield A&T coach Michele Marshall said. “We play inside-out, and it just appeared the gaps were not there. If they were, when we tried to attack, we were just a little bit hesitant.” 

Zone isn’t the typical defensive setup for Heritage, but DeLong said possible fatigue from the previous night’s Semifinal and the importance of keeping Strickland-Gills out of foul trouble pushed her to make the change. 

“I don’t think we’ve played a full game of zone all year this year,” DeLong said. “We played it a couple times last year, and it worked in the Final. We talked about it last night, watched some film today and did some walkthrough at a gym this morning. Most of them have played our zone enough, so they know what to do, but a couple of our kids are a little shaky. But we got them through, and it worked.” 

The Warriors shot 6 of 21 (28.6 percent) in the first half, and just 2 of 8 (25 percent) in the second quarter. They played more than six minutes of the second quarter without star forward Alexis Johnson, who was sidelined with three fouls. 

Heritage was able to take advantage during that span, stretching its lead to 11 points by halftime and never looking back. 

Soleil Barnes led Southfield A&T with 14 points, while Cheyenne McEvans had 13.  

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Heritage’s Mallory McCartney looks for open teammates Saturday during the Division 1 Final. (Middle) A&T’s Cheyenne McEvans directs her team’s offense.

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.