EAST LANSING – After 35 years, nearly 700 wins and three high school gyms, Dan Fife has brought an MHSAA title to his alma mater.
Fife’s Clarkston boys basketball team defeated Grand Rapids Christian 75-69 on Saturday in the Class A Final at the Breslin Center for the first boys basketball title in program history.
“It’s really unexplainable right now,” Fife said. “I really don’t know how to put it. All I know is I’ve been through three high school gyms at Clarkston during my tenure. I’ve said this before, but I really truly meant it: Clarkston’s a special place, I think one because we have one public school in our district. We have great support from our administration, our teachers and our families. I don’t think you can be successful in athletics, especially in today’s world of athletics, if you don’t have that support.”
Fife, who has a 677-169 record at Clarkston, is a 1967 graduate of the school. He took over the program 1982, and in his 35 seasons, only one has ended without a winning record. Even that season included a District title.
“This whole season has been a group journey,” Clarkston all-state junior guard Foster Loyer said. “For my teammates and myself to come out here and win this state championship tonight, it not only means everything to us as players, as a team, as a family; but just knowing we were able to get that done for Coach Fife, it’s what we’ve been dreaming about since we started playing basketball here in Clarkston. It’s just been a phenomenal experience, and we’re loving life right now.”
Loyer, a Michigan State recruit, led all scorers with 29 points on his future home court, shooting 50 percent from the field (8 of 16) and from 3-point range (4 of 8). His future MSU teammate, senior Xavier Tillman, led Grand Rapids Christian with 25 points on 12 of 15 (80 percent) shooting, and grabbed seven rebounds.
“(Loyer) can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he can pass the ball, so it’s kind of like pick your poison when it comes to Foster,” Tillman said. “When we tried to step up, he would drive by, give a pump fake, get the foul, two free throws. It was hard to stop him, and he’s going to be a great player for us later on when it comes to Michigan State.”
Clarkston sophomore Taylor Currie added 16 points and 10 rebounds, while junior C.J. Robinson had 14 points, and senior Dylan Alderson had 12. Grand Rapids Christian juniors Duane Washington, Jr., and Setrick Millner, Jr., added 16 and 11 points, respectively.
“I give Clarkston a lot of credit – they’re well coached, their kids played great, they played hard, and they responded and made shots,” Grand Rapids Christian coach Mark Warners said. “The ball didn’t always go our way, but that’s the way the game goes. They were awesome tonight. We were good, but we weren’t awesome.”
Fife lauded his team’s overall effort in the game, as Robinson’s secondary scoring – specifically 12 second-half points – and ballhandling were able to take pressure off Loyer, and Currie was able to hold his own at times and stay out of foul trouble against Tillman despite giving up more than 50 pounds.
“We knew that (Tillman) is a great force in the paint,” Currie said. “My main focus going into the game was just try to stay in front, knowing I had help in the back. If I could force a pass over the top, it could be a steal. Then when he got the ball, trying to stay straight up and avoid getting into foul trouble. And keeping him off the glass, that was something we really keyed in on because he’s a great rebounder, especially on offense. He uses his body really well, so I was trying to box out as soon as I could.”
Clarkston (27-1) gained the game’s first bit of separation with 3-pointers on four straight possessions to close out the first quarter. Loyer hit three in a row, while Alderson added one at the buzzer to give the Wolves a 20-12 lead.
They led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter, as Loyer opened it with another 3. Grand Rapids Christian (27-1) pulled to within three on a 3-pointer from Tre Vallar in the final minute of the half, but an acrobatic buzzer beater from Robinson gave Clarkston a 34-29 lead heading into the break.
Grand Rapids Christian had a better half from the field, shooting 57.1 percent compared to Clarkston’s 40 percent, but the Wolves held an 8-0 edge in points off turnovers and an 11-2 edge in second-chance points, as they pulled down nine offensive rebounds during the opening 16 minutes.
The hot shooting continued for the Eagles into the third quarter, but they weren’t able to close the gap, as Clarkston was just as hot, hitting 75 percent of its shots in the third quarter and 60 percent in the fourth. The Wolves also shot 14 of 17 from the free throw line (82.4 percent) in the fourth quarter.
“We scored 69 points, so offensively we were fine,” Warners said. “The problem is we gave up 75. The credit goes to, like I said, to Clarkston. We just didn’t have an answer consistently. We’d get a good defensive possession and then we’d come down and not capitalize on it, miss a shot. Then they’d come down and make a shot.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston holds up its Class A championship trophy in celebration after Saturday’s Final. (Middle) Clarkston coach Dan Fife. (Below) Grand Rapids Christian’s Duane Washington, Jr., throws down a dunk.
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.)