By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
There may be 25 undefeated boys basketball teams left in Michigan.
But this week will be telling for a quite a few – both those expected to shine this brightly and also for some surprising us along the way.
Each week during the regular season, we’ll glance at four teams from each class that have caught our attention. Results and records below are based on schedules posted at MHSAA.com.
Canton (12-0) – The reigning league champion Chiefs look like they’ll be tough to stop in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association South again after winning every game of the first run through the division schedule by an average of nearly 15 points per.
Detroit U-D Jesuit (11-0) – Most people’s preseason favorite in Class A hasn’t disappointed – or had an in-state opponent come closer than 10 points. Last week’s lone win, over Detroit Catholic Central, gave the Cubs first place solo in the Detroit Catholic League Central.
Holland West Ottawa (10-0) – The Panthers moved into first place alone in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red with a 58-53 win over former co-leader East Kentwood on Friday – and long ago bested last season’s 6-15 finish.
Macomb Dakota (9-0) – The Cougars showed they were up for stepping into the elite during the first week with wins over West Bloomfield and Clarkston, teams they lost to during the first week last season. In addition to leading the Macomb Area Conference Red, Dakota also has added another impressive win over Lansing Everett.
Big Rapids (9-1) – The Cardinals picked up a pair of 40-point league wins to hold on to a one-win lead in the Central State Activities Association Gold, but may need to finish a sweep against Grant next week to repeat as champion and this time win the title outright after sharing with Newaygo a year ago.
Leslie (10-1) – Although they’re from one of the smallest schools in Class B, the Blackhawks are riding high with nine straight wins and atop the Greater Lansing Activities Conference after beating reigning champion Lake Odessa Lakewood and former co-leader Stockbridge last week.
Onsted (10-0) – University of Michigan recruit Austin Davis is the player everyone knows, but he’s getting plenty of help as Onsted sits atop the Lenawee County Athletic Association with only second-place Hillsdale coming within striking distance so far.
Whitehall (9-1) – After tying for third in the West Michigan Conference last season, Whitehall leads the league with a 7-0 record through the first round of conference games and has lost only to nonleague Spring Lake.
Beaverton (8-0) – The Beavers have won 27 straight Jack Pine Conference games and lead the field by two wins in the league standings as they look to repeat; they’ve beaten the three teams tied for second by five, seven and 15 points, respectively.
Iron Mountain (10-0) – The Mountaineers surely have been looking forward to this week for a while after falling to Negaunee in the regular-season finale a year ago – and by doing so, giving up first in the Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference to the Miners. Both are undefeated as they prepare for this week's latest rematch.
Lutheran Westland (9-0) – The Warriors are another team that surely has prepped for this week; after sharing the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Red title with Sterling Heights Parkway Christian last season, they’re tied for first again and play Friday for the first time this season.
McBain (9-0) – The reigning Highland Conference champion is tied for first with rival McBain Northern Michigan Christian, making this week’s matchup much more meaningful than two one-sided Ramblers wins a season ago.
Alanson (9-0) – A 58-57 win over Boyne Falls to start the new year has Alanson just ahead of the pack in the Northern Lakes Conference; the Vikings tied for second in the league last season.
Lake Linden-Hubbell (9-0) – The Lakes won the Copper County Conference championship last year and have the upper hand in the new Copper Mountain Conference’s Copper Country division with only nonleague Calumet coming within 12 points.
Powers North Central (9-0) – The winning streak is up to 36 straight for the reigning Class D champion, which continues to score like few teams in the state are capable; the Jets have hit 87 twice and scored at least 70 five more times.
Vestaburg (7-0) – This week will be the biggest so far for the Mid-State Activities Conference co-leader as it faces co-leader Carson City-Crystal on Friday after finishing a win ahead of the Eagles for the league title a year ago.
PHOTO: Vestaburg sits tied for first in the MSAC thanks in part to a win over Coleman this winter. (Click for more photos 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.)