Senior Lilah Earl dribbles the ball during a team practice Nov. 30 at Utica Ford II High School.

Senior Lilah Earl dribbles the ball during a team practice Nov. 30 at Utica Ford II High School.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Ford girls basketball regroups behind all-state scorer, defensive mindset

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 4, 2023

 Utica Ford II returns as the defending district champions and Macomb Area Conference White league champions this season.

Utica Ford II returns as the defending district champions and Macomb Area Conference White league champions this season.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


STERLING HEIGHTS — Winning 20 games, a district title and a league title will put a team on the map, and Utica Ford II girls basketball is eager to get everyone’s best this season.

Following a district championship last season, an impressive 20-3 overall record, and a Macomb Area Conference White league title, the expectations of Ford basketball are peaking at the right time behind a talented core of defensive minded players, and of course, Macomb County Player of the Year junior guard and team captain Anayya Davis.

“We know that we’re going to have a target on our back this year with how good of a season we had last year, so I think this year we have to go in ready for each game mentally knowing that every team we play is going to come after us,” Davis said.

Davis will be leaned on more heavily in the scoring department this season after Ford graduated all-State honorable mention Maddy Bettys, and senior veterans Sydney Garon and Kailee Gillich, but the Falcons have the offensive pieces around her to be successful.

Senior team captain Lilah Earl headlines the veteran group after flourishing as more of a role player last season for Ford, and juniors Makenna Bettys, Emily Leusby, Tyra Wright and sophomore Claire O’Brien, a 6-foot center, are expected to be players to watch this season.

“That’s the whole thing is that the kids that were our six, seven or eight last year are now going to be counted on,” Ford coach Matthew Joseph said. “Tyra Wright, she’s a new player for us, and she can shoot the basketball. She’s going to be a good three-point shooter for us.”

There may be new faces and names to the stat sheet in the scoring department this season for Ford, but the Falcons’ offense is one that intends to set up its players with the best chance to succeed.

The best offense is sometimes a well-rounded defensive unit, and Ford’s ability to create easy opportunities in transition is what Davis said will help the offense develop.

“Our strong suit has always been transition,” Davis said. “We do a really good job of getting down the court and outrunning other teams and just making sure that we’re well conditioned. We go hard in practice to make sure that in games we are able to go hard and sustain effort for 32 minutes.”

The Ford motto of “sustain effort for 32 minutes” was pivotal to their defensive unit that allowed the fifth fewest points per game in the MAC, and the Falcons return their star defender this season in junior guard Maria Raciti.

A first year varsity player last season, Raciti was Ford’s spark plug on the defensive side last year, and she’ll be called upon this season to guard the opposing team’s best, night in and night out.

“She’s our defensive specialist,” Joseph said. “She gets after people. She’s got a motor that never stops. She’ll always handle the team’s best offensive player, and I think she’s going to be the one that gets our defense going, defending at the top and handling the point guard.”

Ford’s season ended last year on a close 50-44 loss to Farmington Hills Mercy in the regional semifinals behind a scoreless second quarter that created too big of a deficit to overcome.

While Ford climbed back in the game to pull within three, one thing it showed the Falcons is that they belong in the regional spotlight, and that carried a level of importance to a program that hasn’t won a regional title in 40 years.

With the confidence to be a regional team in mind, Joseph said the team embraces the expectations that come with being a Ford Falcon this season.

“I think they really do,” Joseph said. “We talk about it and look over at the banners and the championships we won, and we respect those players that played before us. That’s the one thing I really love is that we have traditions that players from the past have set, and these guys do the same things. Those things are special. Touching the ‘Together we attack’ sign walking out of our locker room. They buy into that.”

Part of continuing traditions is a strong leadership group, and Ford’s 2023 senior class was one of the stronger groups in recent years.

“I think they had a huge impact,” Earl said. “They definitely taught us a lot, whether it’s leadership, communication on the floor, and getting the ball down. A lot of Ford basketball was shown last year, so we hope to bring it this year.”

Ford will open up regular season play Dec. 7 against MAC Red opponent Utica Eisenhower as the road to the state tournament begins.

Ford will look to defend their MAC White league title this year, but also prove that Ford basketball is just as strong, if not stronger, than last year.

“Nobody hears or talks about Henry Ford, so the fact we made it that far is saying a lot and proving a lot about us and coach,” Davis said. “This year, we have a chip on our shoulder, and we want to make it back there and go further.”