By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Three previously-perfect boys basketball teams suffered their first losses last week, leaving only 15 undefeated in Michigan with the start of the MHSAA Tournament only three weeks away.
There are still at least two teams in every class that have yet to leave the floor unhappy this winter – but also many more teams that have tasted a loss or two (or more) but still can be expected to contend in what is looking like some wide-open brackets in at least three classes (with two-time reigning Class D champion Powers North Central the clear team to chase in the fourth). We highlighted a few more of the contenders in this week's Breslin Bound report, powered by MI Student Aid.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Frankenmuth 63, Bridgeport 53 – The Eagles’ only loss this season was by 10 to Bridgeport in Frankenmuth’s first game this season, and claiming this rematch to hand the Bearcats their first defeat also created a tie between them at the top of the Tri-Valley Conference East.
2. Iron Mountain 54, Norway 43 – The Mountaineers still need another Norway loss to move into a first-place tie in the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference, but got in position by handing the Knights this first defeat of the season.
3. Carson City-Crystal 42, Pewamo-Westphalia 37 (OT) – The Eagles handed P-W its first and only loss this season and also this school year for a number of Pirates who also played on the undefeated Division 7 champion football team.
4. Muskegon 70, Ypsilanti Community 56 – The undefeated Big Reds broke Ypsilanti Community’s 10-game winning streak as they continue to take on the best from all over the Lower Peninsula.
5. Clarkston 73, Wayne Memorial 68 – The Wolves, holding down first place in the Oakland Activities Association Red, earned an impressive win but didn’t knock Wayne off-track; the Zebras finished the week by beating Westland John Glenn to win the Kensington Lakes Activities Association South.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each class making sparks:
Holt (11-3) – The Rams are three losses by a total of 11 points from a perfect record this season, and gave undefeated East Lansing its closest game in a four-point defeat Jan. 13. They face each other again Friday with first place in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue on the line.
Holland West Ottawa (14-1) – The Panthers have built a two-win lead in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red with four league games to play and can finish a sweep of second-place Grand Haven on Tuesday. Those two tied for the league title last season, and West Ottawa went 6-15 only two years ago.
Paw Paw (13-3) – The Redskins have won eight straight and Feb. 3 handed leader South Haven its first loss in the Wolverine Conference North. Paw Paw still trails South Haven in the league standings and will have a hard time catching up, but already has surpassed last season’s 11-12 finish.
Grayling (11-3) – The Vikings – who went 10-12 a year ago – have won 10 of their last 11 as they eye a rematch with Traverse City St. Francis and a possible share of the Lake Michigan Conference title. Grayling’s only league loss was by five to the Gladiators on Jan. 24, and it will get that opportunity to avenge Feb. 21.
Breckenridge (12-1) – The Huskies, coming off a turnaround football season, are in first in the Mid-State Activities Conference with their only loss to second-place Carson City-Crystal. The Huskies were only 6-14 a year ago; they see the Eagles again Wednesday.
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (14-0) – These Eagles own a two-win lead in the Huron League with four conference games to play and have swept second-place Milan. In fact, they’ve won 24 straight league games since falling to Milan in the final Huron game of 2014-15.
Bay City All Saints (12-2) – The Cougars have secured a share of the Michigan Summit League championship and have won seven straight games, adding to a District title they won to cap last season. All Saints also already has equaled last year’s 12 wins.
Northport (11-3) – The Wildcats can clinch the Cherryland Conference title against second-place Traverse City Christian on Tuesday after sharing the championship last season. Five more wins over the final six regular-season games and postseason would give Northport its best record this decade.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Battle Creek Central (13-2) at Kalamazoo Central (13-1) – The Maroons opened their season with a 12-point win over the Bearcats, but a BCC win would make the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East title pursuit a two-team race again.
Tuesday – Romulus (12-2) at Belleville (13-2) – The Eagles have a one-win lead over Belleville in the Western Wayne Athletic Conference Blue thanks to a one-point win over the Tigers in their first matchup Jan. 20.
Friday – East Lansing (14-0) at Holt (11-3) – As noted above, the CAAC Blue lead could be altered with a Holt win, which also would break the Trojans’ 27-game league winning streak.
Friday – Saline (12-3) at Ann Arbor Skyline (11-4) – These two are tied for first in the Southeastern Conference Red with three league games to play heading into this week; Skyline won their first matchup by 11.
Saturday – Detroit Public School League Final at University of Detroit Mercy – Detroit Martin Luther King, Collegiate Prep, East English and Cass Tech will play in semifinals Tuesday to decide the title matchup.
PHOTO: Breckenridge defeated Vestaburg 65-46 on Feb. 3 and is 12-1 this season after winning six games in 2015-16. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)