GRAND RAPIDS – At first glance, it might seem that the Grand Rapids Catholic Central boys basketball team had a relatively easy time in Thursday’s first Division 2 Semifinal against Ferndale.
It was anything but, and only came to fruition following a dominating fourth quarter that helped push the Cougars to an 81-55 victory over the Panthers at Van Andel Arena.
Catholic Central improved to a perfect 19-0 and will play either Pennfield or Bridgeport on Saturday at Breslin Center.
An up-tempo and competitive game turned into a lopsided ending as the Cougars scored an astounding 28 consecutive points in a span of seven minutes, six seconds from the end of the third quarter until late in the game.
“I thought our defense initiated a bunch of offense for us in that fourth quarter,” Catholic Central coach TJ Meerman said. “We rebounded a lot better, and coming out of half we knew they were going to make a push because that’s what they do. I’m proud of our guys, and our team defense and the way they shared the ball on offense tonight was a special thing.”
Catholic Central trailed 44-42 with 2:31 remaining in the third quarter, but scored the final six points of the quarter and opened the fourth with a 22-0 run.
Torrid outside shooting aided the spurt as the Cougars knocked down five consecutive 3-pointers at one point, including three from junior Jorden Brooks.
“We just came out and played hard in that fourth quarter on both ends,” said Brooks, who scored 14 of his 20 points in the second and was 6 of 11 from beyond the arc.
“I said to myself just keep shooting, and my teammates were setting me up for those 3-point shots.”
Brooks’ hot shooting helped Catholic Central on Monday in an upset of top-ranked Benton Harbor in the Quarterfinals.
“His play speaks for itself, and he puts in a lot of time in the gym and it’s shown all season,” Meerman said. “He’s been doing this for us all season, and he had a fantastic run on the offensive end, but he made an impact on defense by keeping his guy in front of him.”
Catholic Central, which lost to Benton Harbor in the 2018 Class B Final, held a 35-25 advantage at halftime as sophomore Kaden Brown was the offensive catalyst by scoring 14 of his team-high 23 points.
Ferndale, however, scored the first eight points of the third quarter to cut into the deficit and eventually grabbed the lead.
“This team doesn’t get down on themselves,” said junior Jack Karasinski, who recorded 19 points and had five rebounds.
“We took a timeout, regrouped and we kept pushing forward. This is a dream because as a sophomore we got this opportunity taken away from us, and we’ve had the hardest route so far I believe with the teams we’ve gone through. I think it has built our confidence.”
The Cougars also received stellar overall play from freshman guard Durral Brooks, who stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, seven assists, five rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.
“That’s what he does,” said Jorden Brooks, his older brother. “He’s a good defender, passer and finisher. He can do anything, and it’s crazy that he has three more years left. We just want to go out and hopefully give him his first state championship as a freshman.”
The fourth-ranked Eagles were making their first appearance in the Semifinals since 1985, and were hoping for a chance to win a championship for the first time since 1966.
Instead, they were unable to stop the offensive onslaught by the Cougars in the fourth quarter as they were outscored 33-11.
Ferndale led 44-42 at the start of Catholic Central’s run, then trailed 70-44 with 3:25 to play.
“I thought we did a poor job offensively, and we didn’t get back on defense,” Ferndale coach Juan Rickman said. “Brooks hit four or five threes, and I saw him do that against Benton Harbor. We didn’t execute in our transition defense and didn’t find him.
“The game just got away from us, and we gave up a lot of points to the three guys we wanted to keep from scoring. You never like to lose, so it’s just tough.”
Junior guard Jason Drake scored a game-high 27 points for the Panthers, but was held scoreless over the final eight minutes of the game.
PHOTOS: (Top) Jack Karasinski dunks two of his 19 points for Grand Rapids Catholic Central on Thursday. (Middle) GRCC's Kaden Brown works to get upcourt. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)