By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The countdown has begun.
Five days until we announce District brackets with the top two teams on separate sides for the first time. Just under three weeks until the regular season ends. Five weeks from today we’ll be packing for the Breslin Center and this season’s Boys Basketball Semifinals and Finals.
It could go by in a flash. But in the meantime, there are tons of moments to savor – especially at the local league level. We turn a lot of our focus to those in this week’s report.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Cass Tech 66, Detroit Douglass 41 – The Technicians (17-1) repeated as Detroit Public School League Tournament champions with a commanding win over the Hurricanes (15-4).
2. Wyoming 62, Grand Rapids Christian 61 – The Wolves’ only loss this winter was by two Jan. 17 to the Eagles (14-1), and Wyoming (14-1) taking the rematch eventually could result in them sharing the Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold title.
3. Marquette 68, Escanaba 64 – The Redmen (15-3) locked up their fourth-straight Great Northern Conference championship by avenging their lone league loss, to second-place Escanaba (11-6).
4. Belleville 53, Westland John Glenn 49 – The Tigers (13-3) earned a share of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East title with a second win over the second-place Rockets (11-5).
5. Ann Arbor Skyline 53, Ann Arbor Huron 40 – The Eagles (11-5) not only avenged a Jan. 24 defeat but handed the first this season to the rival River Rats (14-1).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Hudsonville (14-1) The Eagles already have clinched the O-K Red title outright as no other league team has fewer than four losses. The championship was Hudsonville’s second straight after going just 10-12 two seasons ago. The lone loss this winter came against another Division 1 contender, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 65-47 on Feb. 1 – and the Eagles will get another major test tonight in Wyoming (14-1) as they prep to build on last year’s Regional Final run.
Ypsilanti Lincoln (13-2) The reigning Division 1 champion has taken the first step toward another memorable finish, clinching a share of the Southeastern Conference White title Friday with a 68-45 win over second-place Dexter. The Railsplitters and sophomore phenom Emoni Bates also have impressive wins over Okemos (12-3) and Detroit Edison (10-4), and the losses look pretty great too – to Division 2 contender Benton Harbor and on opening night to River Rouge in a preview of a possible playoff matchup.
Bridgeport (16-1) A loss two weeks ago to Frankenmuth was the only trip-up as Bridgeport has moved within two wins of clinching a share of the Tri-Valley Conference East title for the fourth-straight season. The Bearcats are second in Division 2 MPR with wins also over Linden (14-2), Skyline (11-5), the Eagles (12-2) and Flint Southwestern (13-2) among 10 total against teams with double-digit victories. That also includes a pair against Alma (12-4), which handed Bridgeport its only loss of last season in a Regional Semifinal.
Carrollton (14-0) The Cavaliers already have tied their most wins for a season since 2014-15, and they’ll be in line to claim the Tri-Valley Conference West title if they can finish a season sweep Friday of second-place Hemlock (14-1), which Carrollton defeated the first time 64-46 on Jan. 17. The Cavaliers also own a 77-70 win over Greater Thumb Conference West leader Reese and will close the regular-season with another nice test in currently-unbeaten Kingston.
Detroit Loyola (12-2) The Bulldogs are Detroit Catholic League AA champions and a pair of back-to-back five-point losses to Hamtramck and Dearborn Divine Child from a perfect record. They avenged that defeat to Divine Child with a 17-point win Feb. 11, and they’ve also handed Macomb Lutheran North (12-2) its only defeats this winter. The league title was Loyola’s second straight, and it also reached the Regional Finals last season.
Oscoda (15-0) The Owls have run their regular-season winning streak to 35 and remain the pacesetter in the North Star League Big Dipper thanks in part to a pair of double-digit wins over Mio (11-4). Oscoda also has a 30-point win over Posen (11-4) and a 21-pointer over Hale (14-2) with the rematch against the latter coming up Friday. They’ll also hope to build next month on last year’s Regional Finals run.
Bellevue (13-2) The Broncos have won 10 straight as they pursue what would be a fifth-straight Southern Central Athletic Association West championship. Bellevue has a slight edge on Battle Creek St. Philip after defeating the Tigers last week for the second time, this time 54-41. The Broncos have more to aim for as well – they’ve won seven straight District titles and reached the Quarterfinals a year ago.
Dryden (11-4) Despite trailing Kingston and International Academy of Flint in the North Central Thumb League Stars, Dryden is ahead of IAF and No. 4 statewide in Division 4 MPR. The Cardinals split with the Phoenix, winning the second meeting 49-34 on Jan. 31, and Dryden’s only losses of calendar year 2020 are two to Kingston. New Lothrop (14-2) in the regular-season finale will be a challenge, but winning out would push Dryden past its 15-win totals of the last two seasons before the playoffs start.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Okemos (12-3) at East Lansing (13-1) – The Chiefs lead the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue by a game over the Trojans thanks to a 69-51 win in their first meeting Jan. 14.
Tuesday – Canton (11-5) at Howell (13-3) – The Highlanders can clinch the Kensington Lakes Activities Association West title outright with a win over second-place Canton; their first meeting went to Howell 50-48 on Jan. 24.
Thursday – Cadillac (13-2) at Petoskey (10-4) – These two are tied for first in the Big North Conference, and the winner of this game wins a share of the league title – and the whole thing if Traverse City Central loses to Gaylord this night or another of its final three league games.
Friday – Blissfield (14-1) at Onsted (11-4) – The Royals lead Onsted in the Lenawee County Athletic Association by a game, but lost the first meeting with the Wildcats 55-53 on Jan. 7.
Saturday – Benton Harbor (15-1) at River Rouge (16-1) – Last season’s Division 2 runner-up Rouge hosts the 2018 Class B champion Tigers in a matchup of teams that could both end up in MHSAA Finals next month.
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PHOTO: Flint Beecher, here against Burton Bendle on Feb. 7, leads Division 3 MPR with three weeks remaining in the regular season. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)
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.)