By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
ERIE – When Kevin Skaggs was named the boys varsity basketball coach at Erie Mason, he immediately got on the phone and started asking questions.
After more than two decades coaching basketball, Skaggs was about to embark on something new – high school basketball.
“All of my 22 years was in college coaching,” he said. “I reached out to a lot of different high school coaches, coaches that I had known over the years. … It’s mind-boggling how you have to fit all of the pieces together to build a program.”
Whatever those coaches told Skaggs, he should box it up and sell it.
Skaggs took over an Erie Mason program that occasionally had success but was often the team on the schedule other schools wanted to face. Those days are just a memory now. In his eighth season, Skaggs has become the school’s all-time winningest coach, recently leading the team to its first-ever outright Lenawee County Athletic Association championship. His team also is in the midst of a 13-game winning streak, the longest in school history.
What’s more is the success doesn’t appear to be a blip on the screen. Mason has had five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in school history and its top scorer – the top scorer in Monroe County – is just a junior.
“I think we are starting to make (other schools) believe,” Skaggs said. “We want to be one of those opponents that when we walk into the gym, other teams say, ‘oh, no,’ instead of ‘oh, boy.’”
Those days are here. Earlier this week, Mason knocked off Petersburg-Summerfield, 64-44, in a non-league game. The Bulldogs came into Erie with a 15-0 record and a top 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll but were handled by the Eagles.
Mason followed that win with an 89-50 victory Thursday over Hudson to clinch the outright LCAA championship, the first since they joined the LCAA in 1988.
Erie Mason has a Saturday date this week with LCAA rival Dundee with a chance to improve to 15-2 on the season. Mason hasn’t won 15 games in a season since 2003-04 and has done so only three times since the school debuted in 1961-62.
All of the wins, high-powered offenses (Mason averages 67 points a game and has made 126 3-pointers as a team) can be traced back to when Skaggs first got to Mason and, on the advice of coaching friends, started a youth basketball program, the Junior Eagles. Those first-year kids eight years ago are now the ones Skaggs sees in the huddle during timeouts.
“They are from that first group of our youth program, and you can get a sense of that,” he said. “They love basketball. That was a big step for us.”
Skaggs, 63, brought together others in the community to put together the youth program for boys and girls. While Mason has had success in other sports – the football team won the Class C championship in 1987 – basketball had lagged behind. Now, he said, that culture has changed. It happened, he said, because student-athletes started loving the game of basketball.
“What you want to teach is to teach them to have fun with the game,” he said. “If you get the kids to fall in love with the sport, they will pursue it. You want to be able to keep kids interested and with a ball in their hands.”
The program aims at teaching the game, making sure kids have fun and, then, around the fifth- and sixth-grade level, increase the competitiveness. By middle school, the basketball players are able to compete with other teams on the Mason schedule. By high school, they are used to success and hungry for more.
“Our eight-grade team had a tremendous year, and our seventh-grade team was pretty good,” Skaggs said. “It’s starting to cycle through, which is wonderful to watch.”
Skaggs also said he’s noticed that athletes aren’t leaving the district to go play for other schools like was once the case.
“We’re keeping our players in our school,” he said.
Skaggs earned his master’s degree in sports administration and bachelor’s degree in social work at Western Michigan University, where he met coach Dick Shilts. He was directing Christian-based basketball camps in Michigan and Ohio before becoming an assistant coach at Kalamazoo Valley Community College under Shilts and enjoying monumental success. After six years there, he became head coach at Alma College from 1995 to 2001, going 53-98. His second Alma team went 14-12 and won a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament game for the first time in school history. After moving to Erie, Skaggs got an assistant coaching job at Owens Community College in northwest Ohio. He was an assistant five years with the Express, including three years as a volunteer coach, before becoming the head coach.
In 2011, he was named the head coach at Erie Mason, a school just north of the Ohio border that had just a handful of winning seasons in its history.
“Mason was a no-brainer. I was 55 and getting a little tired of getting on a bus and going three to four hours away for a game,” he said. “Plus, my son was playing and I was missing watching him.”
His family has been a major part of his run at Mason. Sons Isaac and Jacob have both either played or coached with him his entire time at Mason.
“What’s a better place to start than with your family?” he said.
He also found community members Tom Banachowski and Brad Liedel to serve as assistant coaches. He delegates what he calls “meaningful responsibility” to his assistants to help the workload and to build continuity in the program. One thing he doesn’t delegate is the Eagles’ offense.
“I’m greedy when it comes to offense,” he said. “That’s mine. There’s nothing like watching an offense that moves the ball and goes. It’s exciting and fun to watch.”
For the past couple of seasons, the Eagle most fun to watch has been Joe Liedel. The 5-foot-11 junior recently moved into second place on the school’s all-time scoring list. With 1,229 points through 16 games this season, he’s well within reach of the school’s career leader, J.P. Horne (1,455 points).
“If Joe Liedel was 6-foot-3, every Division I school would be calling on him,” Skaggs said. “He’s one of the most complete kids I’ve coached in 35 years – and I don’t say that easily.”
Liedel has been sensational this season. He’s the top scorer in the LCAA, and has had games of 41, 37, 37, 34 and 31 while shooting 51.4 percent from the floor, 86.9 percent from the free throw line and leading the team in assists and steals.
“He’s really a complete player, offense and defense,” Skaggs said. “When he thinks there is a weakness in his game, he identifies it and works on it. He’s always been good at shooting, but now he can get to the basket. It adds to his game.”
Liedel isn’t a one-man show, however. Senior Jake Trainor averages 13.6 points a game, while senior brothers Bryan Sweeney (10.6 points a game) and John Sweeney (8.3 points, 6.3 rebounds a game) have played major roles as well.
When they get to the postseason, Erie Mason will be trying to win its first District championship in 46 years. The 1972-73 team won District and Regional championships. It won’t be easy as the Division 3 District at Blissfield is loaded with talented teams, including Summerfield (15-1), perennial power Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (11-3) and Clinton, which just knocked off 10th-ranked Quincy.
Skaggs is drawing on his college coaching days to keep his players focused on next-level goals.
“Our first goal was to win the LCAA, and we’ve done that,” he said. “Next, it’s the District. Every game we play in now is a test to get ready for the state tournament. You have to keep the focus on one game at a time. We’ve been able to do that. We’re still having fun.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Joe Liedel moved into second place on the Erie Mason all-time scoring list this season. (Middle) Coach Kevin Skaggs has led the Eagles to rare success including an outright league title this season. (Top photo by Vanessa Ray.)
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.)