Did we just watch one of the greatest MHSAA boys basketball champions of all-time?
That’s a question being asked around the state coming off this season’s Boys Basketball Finals at Michigan State’s Breslin Center.
The team that brought up in those comparisons is Lansing Sexton, which won its second-straight Class B championship in convincing fashion. But that run was only one stroke of historical significance to emerge from this season’s Finals.
Saginaw added to one of the state’s strongest traditions with another championship in Class A. Flint Beecher posted the best finish of its successful run by finishing undefeated and champion in Class C. And Southfield Christian set the bar high with its first title run, finishing with one of the sharpest shooting displays in MHSAA history.
We wrap up the winter with a look back at those four tournaments, and a look ahead at teams we could see back at Breslin in 2013.
Saginaw wins No. 6: Class A conveniently played out to end with No. 1 Saginaw vs. No. 2 Romulus – until unranked Rockford crashed with a 62-61 win over the Eagles in a Semifinal. But the Rams, making their second MHSAA Final appearance, nearly earned their second championship. Rockford made 10 3-pointers and was tied with the Trojans as late as 4:36 to play before Saginaw finished on a 14-2 run. (Read the full report.)
Seeing Red again: Lansing Sexton concluded one of the most impressive runs in MHSAA history with a 67-32 win over No. 7 Stevensville-Lakeshore in the Class B Final. The Big Reds finished 27-1, winning all of their games by at least eight points despite playing a schedule loaded with many of the best from Class A. It was Sexton’s third-straight appearance in the B championship game, and second-straight title; the Big Reds also won back-to-back titles, in Class A, in 1959-60. (Read the full report.)
Best of Buc-Town: That’s another argument being made after Beecher became the 12th team in MHSAA history to win 28 games – one more than the best of the school’s other three championship squads. Beecher claimed Class C this season by beating reigning champion Schoolcraft by 20 in the Semifinal and Traverse City St. Francis 74-60 in the championship game. (Read the full report.)
Can’t-miss champs: Southfield Christian tied an MHSAA record with 12 3-pointers in the Class D Final, on 46 percent accuracy, in downing Climax-Scotts 76-44 after escaping Muskegon Catholic Central 78-74 in the Semifinal. Senior Chris Dewberry made 10 of 13 shots from the floor in the championship game, including 6 of 8 from 3-point range. (Read the full report.)
54,823: Total attendance of the eight Semifinals and four championship games, combined, at the 2012 Boys Basketball Finals. The total was roughly 5,600 more than attended in 2011.
74: Wins over the last three seasons by Lansing Sexton, tied for sixth-most in MHSAA history for a boys basketball team over that span of time.
19: Number of games, to one win, that Southfield Christian lost two seasons ago. The Eagles improved to 11-10 last season before going 24-2 and winning the Class D championship last month.
3: Runner-up finishes by Flint Beecher before beating St. Francis to win its first MHSAA championship since 1987. Those just-misses came in 2008, 2003 and in Class B in 2000.
11: Points scored by Saginaw, in a row, to close out the Class A championship game. The Trojans rode that final 11-0 run to a 54-42 win over Rockford.
“They have a big influence in my life. Coach Thomas with all the help he has done for me this season; I could call him any time and get advice. And the same thing with Coach Dawkins. We’re brothers. It’s all about love and having that relationship. He texts me at night and lets me know how things are going, and I text him and ask him for advice about things. I was really appreciative of their support.” – Saginaw first-year coach Julian Taylor, on former championship-winning Saginaw coaches Marshall Thomas and Lou Dawkins, who sat behind the Trojans’ bench at Breslin during the Final
“Denzel is every father’s dream. Both my sons, Drew and Denzel. I’ve been very lucky to be able to coach both my sons and for them to enjoy the thing that I love most, basketball. Denzel’s been incredible. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. His freshman year he had two knee surgeries. The doctor had to put his knee back together. He didn’t know if he was even going to play again, and he fought through some difficult struggles with his knee. We talked about adversity and different things. When he was being recruited by Michigan State, coach (Tom) Izzo said, ‘I’m not going offer you, because you can’t shoot it. You can do everything else.’ So Denzel, when he got done, he went to the gym and shot 500 shots. … That’s the kind of guy Denzel is. He’s going to do extra. I’m really proud of him. I love him. He’s my son, and for the people who doubted him and watched him play, I feel bad for them, because they just missed a fine, fine high school basketball player.” – Sexton coach Carlton Valentine on his son, senior Denzel Valentine.
“It was worth it. We’ve been putting in work all year, the offseason, way before the season; we didn’t just wait for the season to prepare for it. So it was worth a lot. We put a lot into this. And we appreciate this, and not just us, the whole community, the whole coaching staff. We made a lot of sacrifices to get here and finish the job. It’s just a blessing.” – Beecher senior Cortez Robinson, on coming back to win a title after losing in the Semifinals the last two seasons.
“We don’t take anybody for granted. We learned earlier in the year looking at film and seeing guys and going, ‘Oh, this is going to be a cake walk,’ and we come out and guys get up 30 on us and we’re looking like, ‘All right, now we’ve got to find a way.’ We played our hardest, and we just felt like if we played our hardest, we know we put in more work than them. That’s the confidence we have in our work that we put in, so we came out and let that show.” – Southfield Christian senior guard Lindsey Hunter III
See you next year …
Rockford: The Rams certainly were a surprise of the tournament, but won’t be if they make it back in 2013. Seven juniors should return to lead the way, including top guard Chad Carlson and key contributors Chase Fairchild and Kyle Short. (Honorable mention to Macomb L’Anse Creuse North, which made its first Semifinal appearance ever and should return all but two players, including its top two scorers.)
Muskegon Heights: The Tigers look good to return – it’s just a matter of if it will be in Class C or if the school will opt up into Class B, the class it played in this season. Muskegon Heights’ top three players were a junior and two sophomores, and 6-foot-4 forward Mike Davis showed star potential in the Semifinal while carrying more of the load because of an injury to 6-5 leading scorer Juwon Martin.
Beecher: The Buccaneers will graduate seven players off this season’s team, but return two-time reigning Associated Press Class C Player of the Year Monte Morris. With some help, he could carry Beecher back to Breslin for a fourth-straight season.
Climax-Scotts: Three starters during this run were juniors, including 6-7 all-stater Malachi Satterlee. He and the other returnees gained valuable experience during this runner-up finish, as did coach Steve Critchlow, who went 25-1 in his first season running the program.
To watch all 12 games and press conferences after each, click on MHSAA.tv.
PHOTOS courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.
HOWARDSVILLE - There is a sign that hangs inside Howardsville Christian School's tiny gymnasium that accurately depicts the mission for the Eagles during the 2023-24 boys basketball season.
It reads "In Jesus' name we play."
Ken Sparks and the eight players on his varsity basketball roster have challenged themselves to help one another understand what it means to give their season to God.
"My goal is to help these boys find gratitude in playing for a greater power than themselves," said Sparks, a varsity standout himself at Howardsville from 1996-2000, member of the 1,000-point club and an honorable mention all-stater his senior year.
Nestled on the border between St. Joseph and Cass counties along Bent Road, Howardsville Christian, a Division 4 school for its sports with fewer than 80 students, has enjoyed a rich tradition of spiritual learning both in the classroom and on the court and playing fields.
The contribution of many talented athletes from several families has been instrumental in Howardsville's athletic success for years, especially this school year.
Howardsville won District titles this fall in boys soccer and girls volleyball. Now the Eagles hope to carry that momentum over to the basketball court.
With four starters returning, Sparks is looking for Howardsville’s boys team to battle for supremacy in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League and improve on a 13-10 record from last season. The Eagles finished 7-7 in the league last winter and endured a disappointing District Semifinal loss to Marcellus. Howardsville Christian had won its District the season in 2021.
"We competed well with all the teams on our schedule and lost to some teams we shouldn't have," Sparks said. "There are eight teams in our conference, and this season we need to beat Benton Harbor Countryside to be the top team. It's been a good league for us."
Senior twin brothers Colin and Dylan Muldoon return for Howardsville, along with junior cousin Kaden Sparks, son of the head coach, and junior John Paul Rose.
The Muldoon brothers both are beginning their third year as varsity starters.
"Working together as a team is something we really want to do well. A lot of teams set a goal of winning Districts. The last two years we've fallen short of that goal. It's definitely something we want to achieve this year," Colin Muldoon said.
Dylan Muldoon echoed that sentiment.
"Our success in soccer makes us want to attain the same goals in basketball. We know we are capable of reaching those, so I think it makes us want to pull things together," Dylan Muldoon said. "There's a lot of long-distance running in soccer, but there's also a lot of quickness and turning in basketball, especially when you're guarding or driving around someone. You just have to be quick."
Kaden Sparks, another three-year starter, will be Howardsville's best shooting guard.
"Winning Districts is achievable. We have to learn to work together. I played summer ball, and the biggest takeaway is that it taught me that I have to always give 100-percent effort out there. We had a great soccer season, and It’s taught us a lot about accountability," Kaden Sparks said.
Rose will be Howardsville Christian's starting point guard. He has been a starter since his freshman year, along with Kaden Sparks.
"The team chemistry and communication we had in soccer easily transfers over to basketball. As our point guard, it's important for me to try to get the ball to other guys who have open looks," Rose said. "I want to be more aggressive defensively, push the ball up the floor more and increase my scoring."
In addition, Ken Sparks believes the physicality a majority of his team learned from soccer will be a big benefit on the basketball floor.
"You build up your physicality from playing soccer with having to always body up. Watching them play sometimes hurts me, but that's what I want them to do in basketball. It helps them to want to draw contact and be physical on the floor," Ken Sparks said.
The lack of upperclassmen on Howardsville's varsity the last couple of years gave Rose and Kaden Sparks an immediate opportunity to play as freshmen.
"The fact John Paul and Kaden had that early chance at the varsity level is really paying off now,” Ken Sparks added. “Kaden is an excellent shooter. I want him to get the confidence that I had when I was in high school. He tends to be a little more passive on the floor than I like, but he's finally getting that aggressive nature that you need offensively.”
Kaden, Colin Muldoon and Rose all averaged double-digit scoring last season, while Dylan Muldoon is the Eagles' best defensive player. The Muldoon brothers will serve as Howardsville's team captains.
"Kaden is very self-motivated to become a better basketball player. His goal is to be the best player that he can be," Ken Sparks said. "John Paul is explosive and has really refined his jump shot to where he can be a scoring threat. He sees the floor very well and can really push the ball up the floor without turning it over. We're going to see big strides from him because of his determination and drive.
"Colin is a great overall player. He's a threat from the outside and can score inside with his height as well. If we're going to be successful, he and Dylan have to bring the same drive that John Paul and Kaden bring to the court.”
"I've coached all of the guys on our team for the last three seasons except one,” Sparks added. “We talk about being well-rounded. These guys are the best academically and spiritual leaders in our school."
Howardsville Christian’s most well-known alumni is Dylan Jergens, the third-leading scorer in state history with 2,782 career points.
During the fall soccer season, the Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose helped Howardsville win a second-straight District title. The Eagles then lost 5-0 in the Regional Semifinal to eventual Division 4 champion Muskegon Western Michigan Christian. Both Muldoons, Kaden Sparks and Rose were named to the first-team all-BCS and District soccer squads.
The Muldoons were the two main catalysts in the Eagles' soccer run, along with Lukas Krueger. Dylan Muldoon had 28 goals and nine assists, while Colin Muldoon posted 14 goals and eight assists. Krueger added 19 goals to go with 16 assists. Kaden Sparks had five goals and four assists, and Rose added three goals and three assists.
Steve Muldoon, Colin and Dylan's father and Howardsville's head boys soccer coach, sees many correlations between soccer and basketball that will bring the Eagles success in hoops this winter.
"Communication is key. A team that doesn't talk on the field/court isn't going to win. They learn how to correct and encourage one another to deal with problems without getting too negative," Steve Muldoon said. "Individually, they learn how to anticipate. There isn't much difference between anticipating a pass and stepping in front of it in soccer or basketball or making a hard run down the court/field to get open for a layup/counterattack. They learn how to react and make the correct decision under pressure. The skills needed to do it in soccer and basketball are different, but most of it is mental and that carries over."
Determination was another big factor for Howardsville's soccer success this fall.
"We beat Lansing Christian this fall in a weekend soccer tournament and they are a much bigger and physical team than us, but we managed to beat them," Colin Muldoon said. "That win gave us a lot of confidence for the remainder of the season that we could beat anyone."
The family dynamic doesn't stop with Howardsville's boys basketball team.
Senior Kyla Sparks, Ken's daughter and Kaden's older sister, is one of three cousins on the roster for a Howardsville girls team that finished 12-11 last year. All five starters are back for that Eagles team as well.
"As a team, we want to improve on last year's record. With all our starters back, we feel we have a good shot to finish at the top of both our conference and District. Most of our basketball team also played volleyball this fall, and we view us all as family," Kyla Sparks said. "Being able to play with my two cousins makes good lifelong memories."
Kyla Sparks, who averaged 12 points per game her junior year, starts with sophomore cousins Kelsie Muldoon and Kate Evans. Those three also started on the varsity volleyball team that captured its first District title since 1997.
Coincidently, the mothers of Kyla, Kelsie and Kate were all on the 1997 District champion volleyball team.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Colin Muldoon drives to the basket against his twin brother Dylan Muldoon during recent Howardsville Christian boys basketball practice. (Middle) Eagles varsity boys basketball coach Ken Sparks, far left, is pictured by the school's trophy case with his four returning starters Colin Muldoon, Dylan Muldoon, Kaden Sparks and John Paul Rose. (Below) The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (Top and middle photos by Scott Hassinger. District championship photos courtesy of Howardsville Christian School.)