By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
With the beginning of January comes the end of holiday basketball showcases and a switch in focus by MHSAA teams toward local opponents, conference races and the haul of the second half of the regular season.
The first week of 2015 saw the ranks of the undefeated decreased by 35 boys teams statewide to 64 remaining, with some listed below among those that caught my eye during the first days of the new year.
Alpena (6-0) – The Wildcats not only sit alone atop the Big North Conference standings as they look to repeat as champions, but avenged their two losses from last season – by 10 over Traverse City West before break and by 20 over Traverse City Central last week.
Detroit East English (4-2) – The Bulldogs are early leaders in a Detroit Public School League East Division 1 that includes powers Pershing, Cass Tech, Martin Luther King and Southeastern; East English’s current three-game winning streak started with a big win over solid Southfield and includes a five-pointer over better-than-its-record Cass Tech from last week.
Grand Ledge (5-0) – Last season’s somewhat-surprise Capital Area Activities Conference Blue runner-up isn’t sneaking up on anyone this winter; a strong backcourt has paced a fast start that’s included wins over Lansing Sexton on the first Friday of the season and much-improved Jackson by 15 last week.
Middleville Thornapple Kellogg (5-0) – The Trojans have bounced back from last season’s sub-.500 finish thanks in part to four wins by four or fewer points, including a 49-46 victory last week over Caledonia.
Detroit Henry Ford (7-0) – Ford is off to a strong start again this season after starting and ending strong a year ago; the Trojans look good to avoid the five-game losing streak they encountered at this time last year, although Cass Tech and Pershing are up next.
Dowagiac (4-1) – A one-point loss to Wolverine Conference West leader Paw Paw before break surely smarted a bit, but the Chieftains came back to start 2015 with a 58-55 win over rival Niles; they pick up league play Friday against Berrien Springs.
Flint Northwestern (5-0) – After struggling mightily the last two seasons, Northwestern has begun like the Northwestern of old, with a nine-point win over Midland and 37-pointer over Saginaw Heritage last week keeping the Wildcats among the undefeated.
Williamston (6-1) – Only a loss to Class A Dexter in the championship game of Coldwater’s holiday tournament has kept the Hornets from perfection – and also from beating all of their opponents by double figures as they did last week versus East Lansing and Fowlerville.
Burton Bendle (6-0) – The Tigers are halfway to last season’s 12 wins and tied for first in the Genesee Area Conference Blue thanks in large part to a 72-67 overtime win last week over New Lothrop, last season’s league runner-up.
Detroit Loyola (5-2) – The newly-crowned Division 7 football champion has been pretty good at basketball too over the years – but has looked better than that early with its only losses by six or fewer points to much bigger Henry Ford and Detroit Renaissance.
Gwinn (4-2) – The Modeltowners have won four straight after two big losses to start and beat Houghton and Norway on back-to-back nights last week – they took the lead against Norway with 31 seconds to play on the way to winning 43-41.
Laingsburg (5-0) – The Wolfpack have made a smooth transition from coach Greg Mitchell (now at Hope College) to Dan Blemaster (formerly coach of Brown City). Laingsburg sits atop the Central Michigan Athletic Conference by a half-game over Fulton-Middleton (see below).
Fulton-Middleton (5-1) – The Pirates are right behind Laingsburg in the CMAC after having last week’s game against Bath postponed, but did open the week with a 55-53 victory over reigning Class C runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia – one of only three teams to beat Fulton during 2013-14.
Peck (5-1) – The 8-player football power is strong at basketball too, with its only loss to Class B Richmond, 45-41, on Jan. 3. The Pirates lost only once in 2013-14, to eventual Class D champion Southfield Christian in their Quarterfinal.
Morenci (3-1) – The Bulldogs are following their football success of the fall with a nice start to the winter including a one-point win last week over Whitmore Lake after a two-point win to kick off the new year against Gorham-Fayette (Ohio) on Jan. 3.
Onekama (4-0) – The Portagers sit atop the West Michigan D League standings in part because of a two-point win last week over reigning league champion Baldwin; Onekama followed up with another two-point win against Manistee.
PHOTO: Detroit East English defenders block the lane during their 75-70 win over Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.)
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.)