Defense defines Utica Ford girls basketball team’s season

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 8, 2023

 Utica Ford II junior guard Lilah Earl takes the ball up against Romeo Jan. 31 at Utica Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

Utica Ford II junior guard Lilah Earl takes the ball up against Romeo Jan. 31 at Utica Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

Photo provided by Michelle Garon

 In a display of tough defense, two Ford players team up for a block against Romeo.

In a display of tough defense, two Ford players team up for a block against Romeo.

Photo provided by Michelle Garon


STERLING HEIGHTS — There’s emphasizing a defensive mindset, and then there’s prioritizing the defensive unit night in and night out.

At Utica Henry Ford II (14-1), defense not only makes for the best offensive weapon, but translates to one of the best regular season performances in school history.

“If you come to watch us play, defensively we get after people and press a lot,” Ford coach Matthew Joseph said. “We have a lot of length; we’re tall and have long arms, and that makes it tough for opponents to score. Our No. 1 goal at Ford has been on the defensive side of the ball, and they’ve really bought into it.”

Allowing only 32.2 points per game, ranking fifth in the Macomb Area Conference field of 36 teams, Ford’s defensive unit has found the formula to potentially orchestrate a successful run in the state tournament.

A key component of the defensive unit has been sophomore guard Maria Raciti, who is a first-year varsity player.

“She is fun to watch play defense, and she really plays her role,” Joseph said. “When we go stagnant, we call it ‘Maria time,’ and she loves it.”

Previously on the junior varsity team in 2022, Raciti joined a varsity team that had gone 16-6 last season. She said the senior veterans allowed her and the rest of Ford’s newly added talent to feel comfortable and confident.

“All the seniors have been very welcoming to all of us,” Raciti said. “I have a feeling I could talk to them about anything, even if it isn’t about basketball.”

Seniors Sydney Garon, Tea’ Rettig, Kailee Gillich, Madison Bettys and Eliana Karas all lead Ford’s veteran group.

“I love watching how our seniors will carry on traditions of past teams and the respect they have for them, and they’re carrying it on to the younger players,” Joseph said.

Traditions such as getting to practice early, thanking referees and scorekeepers, and being prepared 15 minutes before practice are just a few to note, but it’s not hard to follow the leaders when they’re as established as this group.

Bettys, an All-State honorable mention in 2022, serves as a team captain and is a four-year varsity starter. Gillich is a three-year varsity starter and team captain.

Bettys has been an aggressive scorer this season for Ford, driving to the basket, shooting from outside, and facilitating the offense efficiently.

Understanding that more was going to be expected of her this season, Bettys said both she and the team have stepped up to the challenge.

“We understand that with every game we win, it’s only going to get harder for us,” Bettys said. “Teams understand who we are, and we’re higher on everyone’s list.”

Sophomore guard Anayya Davis, Garon and Gillich have all paced the offensive effort this season.

Garon, who struggled to earn minutes last season, has become one of the primary options for the offensive unit.

“Last year, she played minimal minutes,” Joseph said. “This year, she’s just been a huge piece. Most schools have trouble finding two girls who can put the ball in the basket, and we have four. Her confidence has just soared, and she’s just took off because of it.”

Like their defense, Ford’s offense has been successful in large part due to the group’s ability to work as a cohesive unit.

Joseph said his team focuses on one particular statistic.

“That’s the other part that I think is special about our team, is we don’t care who scores,” Joseph said. “We almost care more about an assist than a basket. It’s fun when the team gets excited about how many assists the team had.”

Holding 10 district titles since 2004, Ford’s sustainable success is nothing new, but a regional title win is still something that’s fresh on their minds.

Still in search of their first-ever regional title, and the seniors knowing that it’s their last season, Bettys said the team is on the same page with one mindset.

“Our goals for the season really are just to make a run in the state championship, but also having fun in the process,” Bettys said.