By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Division 4 has replaced Class D this year as the boys basketball tournament classification for Michigan’s smallest high schools, and some familiar teams from the previous era will return to the Breslin Center on Thursday to help usher in a new one.
Reigning Class D champion Southfield Christian and Wyoming Tri-unity Christian have won eight MHSAA Finals in this sport between them. Dollar Bay joins Southfield Christian as a returnee from last season, making the Semifinals for the second straight, and Frankfort is making the trip to East Lansing for the second time this decade.
Division 4 Semifinals – Thursday
Dollar Bay (21-4) vs. Southfield Christian (19-6), 5:30 p.m.
Frankfort (20-5) vs. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (22-3), 7:30 p.m.
Division 4 Final – Saturday, 10 a.m.
Tickets cost $10 per pair of Semifinals and $10 per two-game Finals session (Divisions 4 and 1). All Semifinals will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv and viewable on a pay-per-view basis. The Divisions 2, 3 and 4 championship games will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit’s primary channel, while the Division 1 Final will be shown live on Fox Sports Detroit PLUS. All four championship games will be streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com and the FOX Sports 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: 21-4, unranked
League finish: Second in Copper Mountain Conference Copper
Coach: Jason Kentala, 12th season (105-120)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 67-64 over No. 6 Pellston in Quarterfinal, 65-56 over No. 10 Munising in Regional Semifinal, 70-55 over Chassell in District Semifinal.
Players to watch: Ashton Janke, 6-3 fr. F (16.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg); Connor LeClaire, 6-0 soph. F (13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
Outlook: Dollar Bay graduated an all-stater and brings only one starter back this weekend from last season’s Semifinal team, but is on a roll with 14 wins over its last 15 games. The lone loss during that string came to CMC Copper champ Chassell, and Dollar Bay avenged it six nights later at the District. Senior guard Brendan LeClaire (9.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.5 apg) is that one returning starter from a year ago, and sophomore guard Davin Hill adds another 12.4 ppg. The Blue Bolts are hitting on 32 percent of their 3-point shots this winter, a big plus as some of these players get their second looks at the Breslin rims.
Record/rank: 20-5, unranked
League finish: Second in Northwest Conference
Coach: Dan Loney, first season (20-5)
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 53-51 (OT) over honorable mention Big Rapids Crossroads, 41-38 (Regional Final), 62-59 (OT) and 63-58 over Leland.
Players to watch: Will Newbold, 6-0 sr. G (14.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.1 apg); Jack Stefanski, 6-3 soph. G (14 ppg, 17.9 rpg).
Outlook: Frankfort is making its third trip to the Semifinals and first since 2014. This time the team is led by Loney, formerly an assistant for four seasons before taking over the program. Frankfort finished behind only Division 3 No. 4 Maple City Glen Lake in the Northwest Conference and has navigated two overtime wins and a third by three points during the postseason – the two overtime victories put the team at 4-0 this season in games that went past regulation. This is also the second straight season the Panthers have reached 20 wins, and four starters plus the top scorer off the bench are all seniors.
Record/rank: 19-6, No. 3
League finish: First in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue
Coach: Josh Baker, eighth season (179-30)
Championship history: Class D champions 2018, 2014, 2013 and 2012.
Best wins: 55-30 over honorable mention Adrian Lenawee Christian in Regional Final, 79-53 (District Semifinal), 61-51 and 69-52 over Novi Christian.
Players to watch: Jon Sanders, 6-1 sr. G (16.5 ppg, 56 3-pointers); Da’Jion Humphrey, 6-2 jr. G (16.4 ppg, 45 3-pointers, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg).
Outlook: Reigning Class D champion Southfield Christian is making its third straight appearance in the Semifinals, with Humphrey and Sanders both starters on last season’s title winner and junior forward Rahmon Scruggs (7.4 ppg) the top sub during the 2018 Final. Junior guard Noah Rheker adds another 11.6 ppg and had made 45 3-pointers heading into this week as well. The Eagles started this winter 2-5 facing mostly Division 1 and 2 schools; they also have wins this season over West Bloomfield and Detroit Country Day, and their only loss since Jan. 5 came to Division 2 contender River Rouge.
WYOMING TRI-UNITY CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 22-3, No. 5
League finish: Second in Alliance League
Coach: Mark Keeler, 32nd season (599-188)
Championship history: Four Class D titles (most recent 2011), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 62-31 over No. 2 Bellevue in Quarterfinal, 68-56 over No. 4 Marcellus Howardsville Christian in Regional Semifinal, 58-40 over No. 9 Martin in District Final, 62-53 over Muskegon Heights Academy in Regional Final.
Players to watch: Bennett Sinner, 6-0 sr. F (12.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.8 spg); Brayden Ophoff, 5-10 sr. G (11.5 ppg, 42 3-3-pointers).
Outlook: Tri-unity has made at least the Quarterfinals four of the last five seasons and the Semifinals now for the first time since 2016. This Defenders team has the program’s best record since finishing Class D runner-up and going 25-3 in 2013. Tri-unity hasn’t lost since Jan. 22, and two of the defeats came to Division 3 No. 2 Pewamo-Westphalia and honorable mention Potter’s House Christian. Sinner earned an all-state honorable mention last season. Freshman guard Brady Titus adds another 12 ppg.
PHOTO: Southfield Christian’s Jon Sanders drives to the basket during his team’s Regional Final win over Adrian Lenawee Christian. (Photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)
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.)