By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Picking the teams to beat in the MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament has been particularly difficult this winter. It appears there are plenty of favorites to go around.
We’ll begin to find out if that’s true when Districts begin tonight all over the state – and know for sure when we see which teams end up at Michigan State’s Breslin Center for Finals weekend on March 20.
Follow as the teams advance on MHSAA.com. Below are some that could reach the final 16 lines of those brackets.
Detroit Pershing (18-2) – It’s hard to believe Pershing hasn’t won Class A since 2009 since the Doughboys always seem to be in the mix. They came back from a two-point loss to Detroit Southeastern at the end of January to beat Southeastern – the reigning Class A runner-up – 57-56 in the Detroit Public School League Tournament Final. Pershing also has impressive wins over Ypsilanti, Detroit Douglass (twice) and Illinois’ Chicago Orr and Morgan Park. Center Justin Tillman, a 6-foot-7 force in the paint, is a Mr. Basketball candidate.
Detroit U-D Jesuit (17-2) – The Cubs tied for the Detroit Catholic League regular-season championship but cruised through the tournament with wins of 50, 28 and 16 points, respectively. They followed with a 10-point win over reigning Class A champion Romulus. U-D Jesuit would win its first Regional title and Quarterfinal on the way if it makes it to Breslin. Considering that could mean defeating both Pershing and Southeastern, it's a tall task that would be considered an even more impressive accomplishment.
Muskegon (20-0) – This is a football school, right? Not entirely anymore given the Big Reds’ basketball success over the last two seasons. Muskegon has improved from 11-11 in 2011-12 in 19-7 and a Quarterfinal run last season to perfection heading into this tournament. Guard Deshaun Thrower, the quarterback that led the football team back to Ford Field this fall, is a Mr. Basketball candidate. Teammate Deyonta Davis could be in 2015. Aside from winning the O-K Black title, the Big Reds have impressive wins over Saginaw Arthur Hill, Mount Clemens and Illinois’ Chicago Curie among others.
Ypsilanti (18-2) – The Grizzlies' only Southeastern Conference loss came to rival Ypsilanti Lincoln in mid-January and was avenged with a 12-point win a month later. Ypsilanti also fell to Pershing by three in December, but owns an eight-point win over a strong Detroit Southeastern team. Ypsilanti won its first Regional title last winter since 1981, but looks to have a good shot at making it two in a row, although the road could include Lincoln again plus Romulus and tough Westland John Glenn among others. Senior center Jaylen Johnson is a mobile 6-9 force and Mr. Basketball candidate.
Detroit Country Day (13-7) – It’s nearly impossible to not mention the reigning Class B champion, even if the Yellowjackets’ record is a bit down from the usual at the end of the regular season. But consider that Country Day is on an 8-1 run, its losses are against some strong opponents including Detroit Consortium and Class A Romulus and Walled Lake Western, and it features Mr. Basketball candidate Edmond Sumner, a 6-5 guard and scorer. Oh, and Country Day avenged that Consortium loss with a one-point win three weeks later.
Grand Rapids South Christian (19-1) – The Sailors have been MHSAA title contenders in seemingly every sport lately, and that’s grown to include boys hoops. After finishing 13-9 a year ago, South Christian fell this year only once, by three points, to O-K Gold runner-up Wayland. South Christian then won the rematch by 10 and also owns nice wins over Holland Christian and East Kentwood – although undefeated Wyoming Godwin Heights (see below) is a likely District opponent this week.
Jackson Lumen Christi (19-1) – The Titans have been building toward a run at their first Semifinals appearance since 1975 after reaching the Quarterfinal last season and falling in that game by only three points. Their only loss this winter was by five two weeks ago to Class A Lansing Waverly, a team Lumen Christi beat by seven earlier this season. The Titans also this season avenged 2012-13 losses to Flint Powers Catholic and rival Jackson, beating the latter twice.
Wyoming Godwin Heights (20-0) – The Wolverines haven’t lost since last season’s Class B Semifinals at Breslin Center. They beat solid Holland to cap the regular season after romping through the O-K Silver with only three of 14 games decided by single digits. But any potential run will have to go through Grand Rapids South Christian (see above) in the District.
Boyne City (18-1) – The Ramblers haven’t advanced to the season’s final week since 1990, but have looked up the challenge cruising through the Lake Michigan Conference undefeated after finishing 11-11 overall a year ago. The tough part this week likely will come in leading off the District tonight against league rival Elk Rapids, which Boyne City beat by three and then 12 earlier this season. Charlevoix also could be a tough out despite its 6-13 record – the Ramblers beat the Rayders by only four and six (in overtime) during the regular season.
Detroit Consortium (16-2) – Consortium has won Regional titles two of the last three seasons and just missed making it farther a year ago, falling by two in the Quarterfinal to eventual Class C champion Flint Beecher. The Cougars’ slate of wins this season includes many of the best from the Detroit PSL, including Southeastern and Douglass, plus wins over Class A Saginaw, Romulus, Saginaw Arthur Hill, and Class B Country Day. The lone losses were in a rematch against Country Day, by a point, and by two to Class A contender Pershing.
Mount Clemens (19-1) – It’s fair to call the Battling Bathers the favorites since the start of this season, or at least one of a few, and they haven’t fallen below that expectation. Mount Clemens won the Macomb Area Conference Gold title by four games after taking on a number of Class A schools including Detroit Martin Luther King and Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills during the season's first month. Only undefeated Class A Muskegon was able to give the Bathers a loss this winter.
Negaunee (19-1) – The Miners have reached at least the Quarterfinals the last three seasons and fell to Laingsburg in last season’s Semifinal by only two points. The only loss this season came in December to Class A Marquette, and was avenged with a six-point win three weeks ago. Negaunee played the biggest and many of the best in the Upper Peninsula and handed rival Ishpeming its only two losses in the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference – which Negaunee won.
Bellaire (20-0) – The Eagles faced only a few bumps in rolling to a flawless regular season record, needing a two-point win over second-place Mancelona and a three-pointer over third-place Onaway on Thursday to claim the Ski Valley Conference title outright. But perfection is nothing new to this bunch; Bellaire’s only loss last season came to Frankfort in the Regional Final, and the Eagles were perfect until the Quarterfinal in 2011-12.
Peck (18-0) – The Pirates’ success during their 8-player football championship run apparently is carrying over to basketball. Or maybe it was the basketball team’s success that carried over to football – the Pirates’ hoops team made its Regional Final last season before falling to eventual MHSAA Semifinalist Lansing Christian. Peck’s three single-digit games this winter came against rival Kingston and Class B Armada and Richmond.
Powers North Central (20-0) – Coming off its first MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 1985, North Central has crushed most of its competition this winter with 11 wins by 30 or more points. Only Skyline Conference foe Carney-Nadeau and Munising got within single digits of the Jets, and no opponent did so before February. Carney-Nadeau does also play in the same District, however, after falling to North Central by only a point in their rematch.
Southfield Christian (19-1) – The back-to-back reigning champion looks good to go for three, losing only to Class A contender Saginaw Arthur Hill this season while beating Walled Lake Western and Detroit Community among solid bigger opponents. The Eagles haven’t allowed an opponent within single digits since Allen Park Inter-City Baptist (14-6) on Jan. 10.
PHOTO: Detroit Consortium found the rim plenty during a 66-38 win over Jenison at the Breslin Center in December, and hopes to return to East Lansing at the end of this month. (Click to see more fromHigh School Sports Scene.)
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.)