By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA - Mark Branstrom was a prolific scorer when he played at Perkins High School more than 40 years ago.
Now, as coach of the Mid Peninsula Wolverines – the consolidated school that grew out of Perkins and Rock high schools in 1977 – defense has been the calling card for Branstrom as he tries to overcome the odds and put his players into competitive positions.
"It might look ugly. We are not as good as anybody else but we can play defense with anybody," Branstrom said about developing an approach that gives Mid Pen – with just seven players on the varsity – a good chance to hang around against better teams with deeper rosters.
Branstrom became Mid Pen's coach in 1984-85, sitting out the 2007-09 seasons for health reasons. The Wolverines are off to a tough start this winter at 0-6, still searching for their first win and with a couple of close losses. But against heavy odds, he has guided Mid Pen to a pair of Class D District titles and one Regional championship and was selected Upper Peninsula Class D Coach of the Year in 2015-16.
That happens through diligent practice sessions, made easier perhaps because Branstrom has also served as junior varsity coach the past four years.
"Everyone knows their job," said Damian Richmond, a former player now with the revived program at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba. "He makes sure everyone is in their spot. He runs plays over and over in practice."
Branstrom, who has coached all three of his sons during his tenure, adopts a buddy-buddy approach with some players and serves as a father-son figure as well, according to Richmond. "He took me under his wing," said Richmond, who indicated Branstrom played a vital role in his decision to play college basketball after graduating from high school in 2016.
Branstrom's youngest son, Brett, is Mid Pen's all-time scoring (1,785) and rebounding (1,328) leader, a two-time Class D all-stater and later four-year regular at Northern Michigan University. He supplanted his brother Carl (1,161 points) as scoring leader. A sister, Hunter, scored 1,019 points. A third brother, Marcus, also played for his dad.
Mark Branstrom holds the scoring record at the former Perkins school, scoring 1,451 points for the Yellowjackets, who played in one of the smallest gyms in the state – typical of that day and age.
"The basketball floor is my element," said Branstrom. "I enjoy every aspect of it, and then I have the kids who respond. I get to teach (young) people who are like a sponge.
"There is never a time since I went into coaching that I did not think we had a chance to win, even against (three-time Class D champion) North Central these last few years."
That was underlined in a recent game at Rapid River, which had halted North Central's state-record 84-game win streak Dec. 7. Mid Pen led much of the first half, using tough defense and a patient offense with Branstrom adroitly guiding everything from the sideline. That lasted until the Rockets settled in and scored the final nine points of the half en route to a 67-41 victory.
"The hardest thing is to get them to communicate on the floor defensively," said Branstrom. "It is like a musical for me to sit there and watch them when they communicate on defense."
Rick Pepin, now Rapid River athletic director but a former coaching opponent of Branstrom, knew what he was getting into against the Wolverines.
"He's always done a great job forcing tempo to fit his style. He never lets his kids play outside of their ability," said Pepin after that recent game in Rapid River.
Branstrom, who has mellowed considerably in recent years, now understands another side of coaching better. "Everything happens for a reason," he said, recalling his earlier days when he was prowling the sidelines with a hot temper.
"I get along with people a lot better (now). There is so much more to basketball than just basketball," he said with a twinkle in his eye. He said long-time basketball referee Dave St. Onge of Marquette was a factor in that change, telling him once "you've got to enjoy this."
Coaching the jayvees has also helped in that adjustment. "It is energizing to the point it has made me a better coach at the next level," he said. "This year I've literally had to collect kids just to have a jayvee team (three of the starting five are in their first year of basketball)."
That underscores why he has stayed on the sidelines. "It is for the love of it. I extremely enjoy it," Branstrom said. "I'm doing something for the kids."
His two teams will practice together, and varsity players will serve as assistant coaches.
The response of his players has kept Branstrom motivated to be in the gym and handle the extensive travel during the winter. His family also lived briefly in Coldwater and White Pine before finally settling in Perkins prior to high school, and he said a childhood friend in White Pine was a big influence.
Ward Helakoski is the son of Ed Helakoski, who directed Chassell to a then-state record 65 straight wins and three consecutive Class D basketball titles in the 1950s. Young Helakoski was a good all-around athlete and excellent student. "He helped me out considerably. My grades improved and I stayed eligible," Branstrom said, adding, "I dedicated myself to basketball when we moved to Perkins because we had no football."
He has remained dedicated, to the sport and to his players, through all the ups and downs of his profession. "I won't leave," he said. "I think I do a pretty decent job. If I wasn't, I would leave. You have to be dedicated to the kids, and I am extremely dedicated and loyal to the kids.
"I love Class D basketball. We have one of the best Class D (basketball) conferences in the state. The competitive level is to the point where the level of play has gotten so good."
However, he has seen how declining enrollments impact the game, noting the 67 students at Mid Pen face Class D schools with enrollments just shy of the Class C level. "Getting to twice or three times the enrollment levels in the same class is not good," said Branstrom.
More than a dozen U.P. schools have enrollments below 80 students. But those are the kind of challenges that also motivate Branstrom and his athletes. Branstrom also was cross country coach for the Mid Pen boys and girls teams last fall, guiding the girls to a Division 3 runner-up finish in the Upper Peninsula.
He believes the farming, rural community is beneficial in the work ethic displayed by many U.P. athletes. "They seem to work harder," he said, noting their academic and athletic endeavors seem to confirm that observation.
Pepin recalls his battles against the Wolverines. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Branstrom," he said. "I watched him coach in the (lopsided) jayvee game (last week) and he never gave up, he never stopped coaching. He took every advantage to teach that team."
Pepin noted Branstrom was also teaching character and pride during that game. "Those are important character traits for life," he said.
"He has never given up on his community, his school, his student athletes. When Mark Branstrom is coaching our kids, they are better off. He makes your team play four quarters because he inspires his kids to play hard."
Basketball has obviously changed since Branstrom led the Upper Peninsula in scoring in 1974-75, with the inception of the 3-point shooting arc primary. "The mid-range game is not there anymore," said Branstrom, who worked that area of the floor. "In pick-up games and practices, they want to shoot those threes, and that has changed everything.
"The two-point shot is still worth so much more. The threes make it a more exciting game to come back (from a deficit), but it takes away from the scenario of the inside-out game. I like the mixture. I'm not for it, but I deal with it."
Dealing with players has also changed during his tenure, as he noted he could not coach today the way he did earlier in his career. "You've got to roll with the flow," he said, which includes adjusting to evolving basketball strategy and how a coach and player communicate. "If you don't change, you don't belong there," he said.
Branstrom has adjusted through the years and shows every night he is totally involved with the game and his players.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Coach Mark Branstrom of Rock Mid Peninsula talks to his varsity during a timeout at a recent game in Rapid River. Branstrom, who is also the junior varsity coach, has just seven boys on his varsity team. (Middle) Branstrom directs his team to back off on the tempo as the Wolverines bring the ball up court against the Rockets. Branstrom has been the Mid Pen coach since 1984-85 after playing at Perkins High School, which consolidated with Rock High School in 1978 to become Mid Pen. (Below) Branstrom applauds his team prior to pre-game introductions. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
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.)