Will Carleton Hoops Creates '1 Big Family'

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

March 8, 2021

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

HILLSDALE – The Thielen siblings, with oldest daughter Lizzy and three younger brothers, are getting to do something few families in Michigan have had the opportunity to experience – playing high school basketball together on the same team.

When there weren’t enough girls out for the girls basketball team this winter at Will Carleton Academy in Hillsdale, basketball coach Jason Coward decided to add the girls who would have played for the Cougars to his team.

One of them was Thielen, who has moved back and forth between the junior varsity and varsity boys team – giving her the opportunity to play with all three brothers, sometimes on the same night.

“I would be so sad if I wasn’t able to play basketball this season,” Thielen said. “I really enjoy the opportunity to play with my brothers. Not a lot of girls get to say they did that. I’m thankful I can.”

Will Carleton Academy, with just 50 students, has one of the smallest enrollments of any school in the Michigan High School Athletic Association. They normally have enough players for JV and varsity girls and boys teams and participate annually in the MHSAA postseason.

This year, however, for a variety of reasons including the effects of COVID-19, Coward said only four or five girls were with the program when the season was launched in February.

“Frankly, some of the girls found other things to do,” he said. “It was a long wait to decide if there would even be a season. They grew tired of waiting. We didn’t know. They didn’t know. Some of the girls that we thought were going to play made other plans.”

Coward was familiar with some of the Cougars girls because he coached them in middle school.

Will Carleton Academy basketball 2“I knew they were good competitors who could play,” he said.

So, instead of putting the girls team on the shelf for the year, he did the next best thing – he put them on the boys team. Thielen, Sophia Crites and Clemmie Gadwood are all regular contributors at the varsity level. Gadwood has started most of the Cougars’ games this season while Thielen and Crites come off the bench and have also split time between the JV and varsity, something that is allowed this season with an MHSAA rule change that allows players to play in five quarters a night.

Coward said there was no hesitation in the girls being part of the team.

“I don’t treat them any differently,” he said. “They are just part of the team. They do everything I ask. They are great teammates and great to have on the team. They run the drills and have gotten so much better.”

Thielen said the transition from the girls game to the boys game wasn’t always easy. Opponents are often bigger, the game somewhat more physical and the boys use a bigger basketball. Still, in the end, it's all just basketball.

Will Carleton Academy is off to a 6-4 start. The Cougars had a four-game winning streak earlier this season, beating Jackson Homeschoolers, Battle Creek Calhoun Christian, Coldwater Pansophia Academy and Litchfield. They’ve beaten Litchfield and Pansophia Academy a second time as well.

In the second win over Litchfield, Gadwood, a sophomore, made four first-quarter 3-pointers and finished with 12 points.

Gadwood and Thielen have brothers on the team. Gabe Gadwood, a senior, averages around 20 points a game and is the team’s top scorer. 

Thielen said it helps having brothers on the team.

“We are all one big family,” she said. “We go home at night and talk about our games or practices together.”

On Friday, the Cougars played Britton Deerfield. BD head coach Darren Shiels was impressed with the play of WCA.

“It should really help their girls program,” said Shiels, who has coached at Britton and Britton Deerfield for more than 15 seasons. “Playing against tougher competition always makes you better.”

Will Carleton will conclude its regular season March 19. Before then they have two games with Jackson Prep along with dates with North Adams-Jerome and Waldron. The Cougars are grouped in a Division 4 District at Pittsford that includes undefeated Hillsdale Academy.

The Cougars are not the only school in southeast Michigan to have girls play as part of the boys team. Vandercook Lake is not fielding a girls team this winter. Earlier this year, Shelby Moore knocked down a 3-pointer in a Jayhawks game against East Jackson. She did so on an assist from her brother.

Coward said the school had discussions during the preseason about becoming a co-op with another Hillsdale County school for girls basketball but decided it would be better to incorporate the girls into the Cougars boys team instead.

The girls coach, Lakyn Sattison, became an assistant coach for the boys team – and Coward said the girls and boys varsity teams could practice together next season. For another month they’ll continue to play together as one – thankful for the opportunity to take the floor every night, proudly wearing school colors.

“It’s definitely a different game,” Thielen said. “The game is pretty quick, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve had to improve my skills. It’s helped me improve my skills. It’s just a different level of competition.

“Sure, I wanted to play with my classmates and other girls in my school, but I’m getting to play. And that’s all that matters.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Will Carleton Academy’s Clemmie Gadwood (12) positions for a possible 3-pointer this season. (Middle) WCA coach Jason Coward huddles with his team. (Photos by Joe Flaherty, Hillsdale Daily News.)

Ferndale Caps Winter Season with 1st Boys Hoops Title Since 1966

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

March 25, 2023

EAST LANSING – One team was going to end a long championship drought in Saturday’s boys basketball Division 2 Final.

Ferndale’s was especially lengthy, and spanned more than five decades.

And now it is no longer.

The Eagles won their first Finals championship in 57 years with a 44-38 victory over Grand Rapids South Christian at Breslin Center.

Ferndale had last won a state title in 1966.

“The drought is over,” Eagles coach Juan Rickman said. “That’s big time, and the biggest part about making it down here was seeing how charged up the community was and the school was so charged up. It’s the greatest feeling to see how vested our community was in our success.”

Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim.Ferndale senior Christopher Williams led the way with 16 points and four rebounds.

“It feels great,” Williams said. “Especially since the past four years we’ve been to the same place and lost twice in a row to the same team, and now it feels like weight is lifted off my shoulders.

“We started off the season 1-5, and going till now we knew if we stayed together through adversity then we could do it. And it made it more impactful that it was our coach’s first state title, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Added senior point guard Cameron Reed, who had a game-high seven assists: “It’s incredibly special. I wasn't born back then, my teammates weren’t born and my coaches weren’t born. It definitely rejuvenated the whole city and community.”

Ferndale led 8-4 at the end of the first quarter, and both teams shot poorly in the first half. The Eagles connected on a paltry 24 percent from the field, and South Christian on 35 percent of its attempts. Nate Brinks drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sailors a 16-14 halftime lead. 

Junior guard Jake Vermaas opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to make it 19-14, but Ferndale made a charge.

The Eagles sliced the deficit to one (25-24) on a 3-pointer by Trenton Ruth, and Cameron Reed tied it at 28-28 with an acrobatic layup.

“Our team was mentally strong, and I’m so proud of them for their accomplishment,” Rickman said. “Just so committed to the process and just being resilient.”

Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.An 8-2 spurt by Ferndale over the first three minutes of the fourth quarter made it 36-30.

“That was extremely important, and we always want to win the first four minutes,” Rickman said. “And we tried to open up the fourth quarter with what we call a kill; we want to get five straight stops and score on two or three of those possessions so we can build a lead. We did that fairly well against a good team.”

South Christian was attempting to win football and basketball Finals championships during the same school year, and was looking for its first basketball title since 2005.

“It was a really hard-fought game and I thought we played at our speed, but it got away from us a little bit,” first-year Sailors coach Taylor Johnson said.

“But it doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year. We’ve been through it all, including three season-ending injuries, and to still make it to the state finals is an incredible feat.”

Senior Jacob DeHaan and Vermaas led the Sailors with 14 points apiece, while senior Sam Medendorp added seven points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Ferndale raises the Division 2 championship trophy Saturday night at Breslin Center. (Middle) Christopher Williams (13) tries to power past South Christian’s Sam Weiss (23) to the rim. (Below) Cameron Reed (0) leads a break for the Eagles.