EAST LANSING – Antuan Burks and Monte Morris sat together during the 2008 Class C Final and watched Flint Beecher come up just three points short of winning an MHSAA championship.
They agreed they’d be back to finish the job.
The Buccaneers gave it a run at the 2010 Semifinals, and again last season. This winter, not only did they again play into the final weekend of the season – the Bucs put together arguably the best in the program’s illustrious history.
Beecher capped a perfect run with a 74-60 win over Traverse City St. Francis in Saturday’s Class C Final at Breslin Center. The championship is the Bucs’ first since winning Class B in 1987 – and made good on that middle school dream of its current varsity captains, Burks and Morris.
“We sat by each other here saying we’re going to finish it. We’re going to bring a championship home,” Burks said. “We made history today.”
And in a number of ways.
Beecher finished 28-0, becoming the 12th team in MHSAA history to win that many in one season. Flint has gained national renown for its hoops prowess and tradition, and this championship was the first for the city’s public schools since Flint Northern won Class A in 1995. This title came after Beecher’s runner-up finishes in 2008, 2003 and in Class B in 2000.
Bucs legend Roy Marble, who later played at Iowa and in the NBA, called the team Friday night and offered encouragement for the Final and a reminder about the legacy of Beecher basketball.
“It’s incredible. The only thing that I can say is we’ve got the full support of all the Beecher alumni,” Bucs coach Mike Williams said. “It’s humbling to be considered and to be known right up there with all those great teams that have played in the past at Beecher and to add to the legacy Beecher has. That’s the main thing.”
This Beecher team will be remembered in part for its incredibly fast pace of place, and the Bucs got going quickly Saturday. They had six fast-break points and constantly pushed the tempo in taking a 23-9 by the end of the first quarter.
Beecher pushed the advantage to 41-21 by halftime.
“Just going by what the defense did to us, they dictated that we needed to push the ball up the floor. That’s our game anyway,” Williams said. “The faster we play, the better. We can just run up and down the floor and play freestyle basketball, but we can also slow it down in the halfcourt. With the road we went through to get here, we played every style.”
St. Francis (25-3) didn’t go quietly, though. The Gladiators cut the deficit to 12 with 2:10 to play in the third quarter, and multiple times seemed on the verge of making the game a lot closer.
Senior center Sean Sheldon finished with game highs of 22 points, 19 rebounds and six blocks, and senior point guard Devin Sheehy capped his high school career with eight assists.
“The style of game we play, I figured if we could be close at halftime, usually we make a second-half run,” St. Francis coach Keith Haske said. “I really thought in the second half we went to their level, really played some good basketball.”
Morris led Beecher with 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists, and Burks had 16 rebounds and six assists. Senior Jequarius French added 14 points and senior Cortez Robinson scored 11.
With one more season to play, Morris has an opportunity to make more history at Beecher. As the reigning two-time Associated Press Class C Player of the Year, it’s more or less expected.
But like Marble did for this team, Saturday is a moment Morris will be passing on long after his days at Beecher are done.
“Knowing I can come back after our guys graduate, and just talk to the guys that are playing and let them know how we made the state championship and had an undefeated season,” Morris said, “that’s wisdom I can take and explain to younger guys that are coming up.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Beecher players together hoist the champion’s trophy after Saturday’s Class C Final. (Middle) Beecher junior Monte Morris splits Traverse City St. Francis defenders on his way to the basket. (See more at Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)