By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
This weekend’s Class A bracket could be full of surprises. We’ve already had a few.
Not shocking to anyone: Reigning champion Clarkston is back and the team to beat.
But the three that will try include two traveling to the Semifinals for the first time – Holland West Ottawa and Novi – and another, Warren DeLaSalle, that avenged three losses to a nemesis to earn this opportunity.
Class A Semifinals – Friday
Warren DeLaSalle (19-7) vs. Clarkston (24-1), noon
Holland West Ottawa (24-2) vs. Novi (17-8), 2 p.m.
Class A Final – Saturday, 12:15 p.m.
Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Class D and Class A). All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a pay-per-view basis. The Class D, A and C championship games will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit, while the Class B Final will be shown on Fox Sports Detroit on a delayed basis at 10:30 p.m. Saturday. All four championship games will be streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports Go! app. Free radio broadcasts of all weekend games will be available on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a glance at all four semifinalists. Click on the name of the school to see that team’s full schedule and results from this season. (Statistics are through teams' Regional Finals.)
Record/rank: 24-1, No. 1
League finish: First in Oakland Activities Association Red
Coach: Dan Fife, 36th season (701-170)
Championship history: Class A champion 2017.
Best wins: 52-31 (Quarterfinal) and 72-67 over No. 6 Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 48-38 and 70-39 over No. 4 Hazel Park, 66-65 over Wayne Memorial.
Players to watch: Foster Loyer, 6-0 sr. G (25.6 ppg, 6.0 apg, 77 3-pointers); CJ Robinson, 5-11 sr. G (13.8 ppg, 57 3-pointers); Taylor Currie, 6-9 sr. C (13.1 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg).
Outlook: Coming off its first championship, Clarkston almost assuredly is the favorite again and has been rarely challenged – even when Loyer missed the second Hazel Park game with a knee injury. The only loss came Dec. 28 to formidable Detroit East English, and the only games decided by single digits came against Carman-Ainsworth the first meeting and to league rivals Troy (twice) and West Bloomfield. Loyer, headed next to Michigan State, was named Mr. Basketball on Monday, and Currie is headed to Wisconsin after graduation.
HOLLAND WEST OTTAWA
Record/rank: 24-2, No. 8
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Red
Coach: Steve Windemuller, fifth season (81-32)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 58-55 over No. 10 East Lansing in Quarterfinal, 46-42 (OT) over No. 9 Muskegon in Regional Final, 45-27 over No. 6 Flint Carman-Ainsworth, 59-49 over Class B No. 7 Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Players to watch: Tyler Bosma, 6-6 sr. F (17.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.6 bpg); Xavier Wade, 6-3 sr. G (12.1 ppg, 5.2 apg).
Outlook: This is the longest run in West Ottawa history and included its first Regional title last week. The Panthers are a combined 47-4 over the last two seasons and this winter their only losses came by three to league rival East Kentwood and in the opener to Class B power Wyoming Godwin Heights. The run has been keyed by a number of great athletes who achieve across multiple sports; for example, Bosma will play baseball after graduation at Miami (Ohio), and Wade is headed to Ferris State for both basketball and football. Six players average at least five points per game.
Record/rank: 17-8, unranked
League finish: Second in Kensington Lakes Activities Association Gold
Coach: Brandon Sinawi, fourth season (63-32)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 75-73 over honorable mention Belleville in Quarterfinal, 61-59 over No. 2 Ann Arbor Skyline in Regional Final, 60-58 (District Semifinal) and 61-56 over No. 7 Canton.
Players to watch: Trendon Hankerson, 6-3 sr. G (14.2 ppg); Traveon Maddox, Jr., 6-5 sr. G (17.5 ppg). Outlook: Novi is 16-3 since Hankerson returned from an injury and avenged early-season losses to Skyline and Howell. The Wildcats have won 11 of their last 12, falling only to Grand Blanc in the KLAA tournament final, and last week’s Regional title was the program’s first. Junior 6-4 forward Jiovanni Miles is another big-time scorer, averaging 15.3 points per game with 55 3-pointers entering the week, and 6-9 senior Tariq Woody (10.9 ppg) adds plenty of presence in the middle.
Record/rank: 19-7, unranked
League finish: Second in Detroit Catholic League Central
Coach: Greg Esler, 24th season (394-179)
Championship history: Class B runner-up 1982.
Best wins: 63-58 over No. 3 Detroit U-D Jesuit in Quarterfinal, 47-46 over Class C honorable mention Detroit Edison, 69-59 over Class B No. 8 Williamston.
Players to watch: Luke Pfromm, 6-5 sr. F (15.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg); Justin Fisher, 6-4 sr. G (10.6 ppg, 5.3 apg).
Outlook: DeLaSalle has been on the verge of elite all season long and pushed its way in by avenging three losses to U-D Jesuit with the Quarterfinal victory. Three of the Pilots’ losses this season were by a combined five points. Esler has more than 500 win total over a 31-year head coaching career, and Pfromm has plenty of championship experience from quarterbacking the football team to the Division 2 title in the fall. Senior 6-5 forwards Kole Gjonaj (10.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Jordan Winowiecki (9.5 ppg) add more size to the starting lineup.
PHOTO: Holland West Ottawa’s Xavier Wade (0) goes hard to the basket against Grand Haven. (Photo courtesy of the Grand Haven Tribune.)
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.)