Energy, Competition, Moments & More Continue to Spark Unity Coach Soodsma

By Steve Vedder
Special for

February 15, 2023

HUDSONVILLE – The pep band is blaring the school fight song, the boisterous crowd of a couple of thousand fans has long grown weary waiting for the opening tip-off, and the antsy players are crowded behind the locker room doors ready to spring like a pack of lions.

It's like the scene from the epic basketball movie "Hoosiers" where coach Norman Dale pauses before entering a rollicking and packed Friday night gymnasium to mutter to himself, "Welcome to Indiana basketball."

Scott Soodsma not only grasps the significance of that scene firsthand, it's why after four decades he still loves coaching.

"The fierce competition, the band, your heart pounding like a dog – it's still like it was 30 years ago," said Soodsma, the Hudsonville Unity Christian coach and dean of West Michigan basketball coaches in his 41st season of a run that’s included two states and three schools.

"How does it get any better than that? I'm always telling the kids to live for the moment. You can't replace all that; I still get the shivers. I've had so many moments like that."

Among those highlight moments are being one of just two Michigan coaches to win both girls and boys MHSAA Finals championships (Paul Cook of Lansing Eastern was the other), and the moment he claims is easily No. 1 on his all-time personal list: coaching his daughter Amber as part of the 2006 Class B champ. Unity Christian also won a 2019 boys state title. He also won a third Finals championship with the boys at McBain Northern Michigan Christian.

Soodsma, 63, admits there have been myriad changes in coaching basketball since his first season at North Dakota's James Valley Christian High School in 1983 and coming to Unity Christian in 1993. For starters, players are bigger and stronger and are more schooled in the game through AAU and offseason programs. In addition, the influence of parents – for better or worse – has increased dramatically. As for the on-court game, Soodsma unabashedly admits he at first fought the institution of the 3-point shot. And the emphasis on winning has definitely only increased pressure on many coaches.

Soodsma, a member of the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame who ranks ninth on the state's all-time boys wins list with 635, said he's adapted to the times. He wants to win as much as he ever has, still broods for days after losses and still considers himself receptive to the changing Xs and Os aspect of coaching.

But where his booming voice routinely used to resonate loudly into the middle sections of the Unity Christian bleachers, most of those comments now are only audible to fans perched in the first couple rows of the stands. Which is probably a good thing, Soodsma adds sheepishly.

Soodsma and daughter Amber embrace during their team’s 2006 Class B Final victory.Coaching, he readily contends, is still coaching – and winning still heads the list of priorities. He does add one disclaimer, however, in terms of winning. Whereas it used to be about a young coach building a resume through wins, it's now about what winning can do for today's teenager athlete. An old-school coach? Yeah, probably. But one who has learned much about himself, players and parents after 41 years.

"I've learned to enjoy the kids more; I'm definitely a different kind of person in the ’90s as opposed to now in the 2000s," he said. "I am a stubborn man, and it took a long time (to change). But winning? Oh, yeah. I've never backed down. The winning and losing hasn't changed, and I make no excuses that I still want to win."

Which is then strange, perhaps, that he doesn't list being just one of two coaches to win Finals titles in both girls and boys basketball as the zenith of coaching for 41 seasons. That honor goes to having his daughter, who went on to a stellar career at Dort College, on the state championship club.

"It's not that big of a deal," he said of being on the bench for what likely will never happen again as boys and girls basketball are now in the same season. "To me it's not an accomplishment I would rank (at the top). I'm just being honest. Winning a state title with Amber, and the picture I have of her and me in my office, that's the best."

How well has Soodsma adapted his coaching style over the years? Two people in a position to know offer their own opinions on the topic, including 22-year assistant Bruce Capel and Randy Oosterheert, who with son Rylan are the only father/son combination that Soodsma has coached.

"Scott has always been vocal on the sidelines as a coach. As I sit in the stands and watch as a spectator, same Scott," said Randy Oosterheert who played for Soodsma in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and whose son is a current Unity Christian player. "I will say that my son and I agree, if you do something wrong on the floor, he is the first person to greet you on the sidelines and point out your failure. However, if you do good, he is the first person to greet you on the sidelines and tell you good job.

"The latter is done at a little lower decibel level than the offense, and those with a watchful eye from up in the stands unfortunately (don’t) get to hear the praise, only the punishment. Scott is obviously very competitive, then and now. He expects a lot but gives a lot."

As far as the competitive side, Capel hasn’t seen much of a difference over their two decades together.

"Certainly, coaching is a lot different in how you approach kids from more than 20 years ago," he said. "There's a difference in society and you have to change with it, and he's done that. I don't think it's as much life and death with Scott anymore. But in terms of winning, I haven't seen that go away."

It's a coin flip as for how much longer Soodsma will be directing traffic from the sidelines. He broke into the top 10 among the all-time winningest boys coaches in Michigan history by passing Warren De La Salle's Bernie Holowicki and Ray Lauwers of Morley Stanwood last season. Next on the list is Big Rapids' Kent Ingles (644). When you factor in Soodsma's win total as both boys and girls coach, the 742-and-counting combined wins rank eighth in state history.

He does admit the desire to spend more time with wife Mary, the longtime away scorekeeper for the program, and 11 grandkids scattered from Denver to Seattle to San Diego. Retirement could strike when this season ends in March, or it could still be several Marches away. But when the end comes he anticipates making a contented transition from arguing with officials, coming to an "understanding" with parents and devising new Xs and Os. Soon, he mused, will come time for much-anticipated passions such as hunting, fishing and pickleball.

"For the first time I've contemplated it," he said. "There are a lot of things I'd like to do. I'm not a basketball junkie."

That may be true. But it'll still be tough to surrender those noisy pep bands, bright gymnasium lights and the din of Friday night crowds.

PHOTOS (Top) Hudsonville Unity Christian boys basketball coach Scott Soodsma stands in front of a portion of the school’s trophy case, which he’s helped fill over decades coaching basketball. (Middle) Soodsma and daughter Amber embrace during their team’s 2006 Class B Final victory. (Top photo by Steve Vedder. Middle photo courtesy of the Soodsma family.)

Howardsville Christian Striving to Transfer Fall Successes to Basketball Court

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

November 28, 2023

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.

Southwest CorridorIt 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."

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. 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.

The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (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 HassingerScott 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.)