By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A number of MHSAA boys basketball teams finished the first half of their league schedules last week.
A number of games set up which teams will chase over this final month of the regular season, as well as which will be chased with little to no room for error.
See some of those teams below that stuck out for how they stayed in or joined league races over the final week in January.
Battle Creek Central (7-6) – Opponents can’t sleep on the Bearcats despite their middling record; Battle Creek Central started 0-5 but has won five straight including two by five or fewer points last week. Central trails Kalamazoo Central by a win in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East and faces the Maroon Giants on Friday.
Dearborn Fordson (9-3) – A brief downturn of three losses in four games in mid-January is over thanks to wins over rivals Robichaud and Dearborn last weekend. The Tractors’ next games are against the teams ahead of them in the Western Wayne Athletic Conference Blue standings – co-leaders Belleville and Romulus.
Novi (10-2) – Barring something unexpected, only Salem can still challenge Novi in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association Central. The Wildcats finished fifth in the league last season; a 77-65 win over Salem on Jan. 20 separates the two at this point.
Saginaw Arthur Hill (11-2) – Playing potentially its last season (the school reportedly may merge with Saginaw High), the Lumberjacks are taking advantage and haven’t lost in 2015. They own a one-game lead in the Saginaw Valley Association North thanks to an 88-66 win last week over second-place Saginaw.
Alma (9-2) – The Panthers took a tough Tri-Valley Conference crossover loss to West leader Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary on Friday, but opened last week by beating East co-leader Millington by 15 and then extended their Central advantage to two games with a win Saturday over Hemlock.
Dowagiac (10-1) – The Chieftains retained their grip on a share of first place in the Wolverine Conference West with a 68-66 win over third-place Edwardsburg last week. Dowagiac has won seven straight and gets its rematch Friday with Paw Paw, the other first-place team and the only one to beat Dowagiac this winter.
Haslett (10-1) – The Vikings have quietly set the pace in the Capital Area Activities Conference Red behind standout junior point guard Brandon Allen, and he’s gotten plenty of help during a six-game winning streak that last week included an overtime win over Class A Holt. The only loss was to second-place DeWitt, up again Feb. 13.
Marysville (9-2) – Marysville missed a league title by a win last season but has two more than the field in the Macomb Area Conference Silver after rolling through the first half of the league schedule undefeated. The Vikings needed three overtimes to beat Clawson 51-46 last week.
Carson City-Crystal (8-2) – The Eagles extended their recent winning streak to five with a 62-55 win over Vestaburg on Friday that pushed both teams and Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart into a tie for first place in the Mid-State Activities Conference. The second half of the league schedule starts this weekend.
Fennville (11-1) – A halfcourt shot make was the most memorable play of Friday’s 67-61 overtime win over Saugatuck that kept Fennville in first place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference North. The big shot sent it to the extra period as Fennville went on to win the “Never Forgotten” game played in honor of former standout Wes Leonard, who died on the court in 2011.
Manton (8-3) – The Rangers won 10 games last season and can equal that total in 2014-15 with two victories this week. Manton lost big to Highland Conference leader McBain three weeks ago, but maintains second place and gets McBain again Feb. 20.
Maple City Glen Lake (7-4) – The Lakers opened 3-4 but haven’t lost since to hold on to a share of first place in the Northwest Conference. Glen Lake owns that piece of the top spot after beating Frankfort – also tied for first – 45-44 on Jan. 13.
Alanson (8-2) – The Vikings have won six straight and sit alone in second in the Northern Lakes League after defeating third-place Mackinaw City 45-42 on Friday. Alanson fell to the Comets by 21 points on Jan. 6 and won nine games a year ago.
Felch North Dickinson (7-5) – The Nordics started 1-5 but are making their way back up the Skyline Central Conference East standings. North Dickinson sits in third but beat second-place Crystal Falls Forest Park 57-53 last week.
Lawrence (10-1) – The Tigers’ 8-player football MHSAA title kicked off a strong year for the school’s boys teams; the basketball team leads the Southwestern Athletic Conference South and has won seven straight.
Rudyard (10-3) – The Bulldogs are second to Class A Sault Ste. Marie in the Straits Area Conference and have won four straight including 75-65 over third-place St. Ignace on Friday. Rudyard gets its second shot at Sault Ste. Marie on Feb. 24 after losing by 10 in their first meeting Jan. 16.
PHOTO: Alma defeated Millington in a crossover matchup of Tri-Valley Conference leaders last week. (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.)