By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
POWERS – A second straight Class D boys basketball championship. A third straight MHSAA title covering two sports. A 52-game winning streak.
Toss in an approaching individual scoring record for good measure.
Talk about a massive target on the back of the North Central Jets during the final week of the high school winter sports season. Or you can talk about goals they are close to attaining.
Or talk about pressure. Not, however, for the Jets (25-0), who face Onaway (21-4) on Tuesday in a Class D Quarterfinal at Sault Ste. Marie High School.
Coach Adam Mercier said his squad is just following a game-by-game approach, with the next game always the most important. As for a target on their collective backs, Mercier said, "it is not any bigger than the one they give themselves. They have high expectations, and we expect everyone's A game.
"They treat every game the same. They don't pack it in. They play as hard as they can. They follow every game plan we have."
The Jets are also busy re-writing the MHSAA record book. They already own the mark of 82 wins over three seasons, surpassing the record 79 shared by two Flint schools, Northwestern and Beecher. If the Jets win their final three games of this season, they will tie the mark of 55 wins set over two years by those two schools and would equal Saginaw Buena Vista for fourth place with 55 straight wins. (Chassell has the state mark of 65 straight).
North Central, which has not lost since falling to Cedarville 81-79 in a Quarterfinal game on March 18, 2014, is an astounding 82-1 over the past three years. Mercier is 162-79 in 10 seasons, after starting 6-37 over the first two at his alma mater.
Outstanding team chemistry, created in part through family connections in this small Upper Peninsula community, is perhaps as important for North Central's athletic success as having outstanding talent.
Junior Jason Whitens, an all-state selection on last year's championship team, is just 10 points shy of the school's career scoring record of 1,350 points owned by his uncle, Tom Granquist. Whitens took over the helm of this year's team after the graduation of his cousin, Rob Granquist. The two Granquists and Whitens also played quarterback for the Jets, with Whitens directing North Central to the 2015 8-player title in the fall.
Mercier became head coach of the boys basketball program in 2006 after Gerald Whitens left after a four-year stint.
"They're loose and they keep everything in perspective," Mercier said of his squad. "They have fun, they don't complicate things with egos or individual accolades. It is very similar to last year (basketball) and football. They are able to joke around, and they are able to critique one another. The perspective they have on each other is neat to see."
The system has worked wonderfully for the Jets, who also won the Class D title in 1983. A member of that team was Gerald Whitens, who is Jason's father and serves as an assistant coach on this squad.
Opposing coaches have a solid perspective on the Jets. Joel Schultz of neighboring Bark River-Harris said, "they combine size and athleticism you don't see in Class D. Couple that with the fact they are gym rats, it is just a perfect storm. They are above a level that is typical in Class D. They are better than a year ago."
Rock Mid Peninsula coach Mark Branstrom, who also coached against that 1983 title team, said, "they are about the most talented group of young men I've seen. It is hard to understand who will ever beat them. They are like a college team, and we are like a high school team.
"They have it all. They are so strong. I don't know where there weakness is."
Chris Nocerini of Crystal Falls Forest Park has been deeply frustrated by the Jets. The Trojans finished 22-3 this season, with all three losses provided by the Jets, including a 75-45 conquest Wednesday for their fourth straight Regional crown. Forest Park, always one of the peninsula's top quintets, is 0-10 against North Central the past four seasons.
"They are a good team, they are deep, they have a nice rotation," Nocerini said. "They have played together for a long time. What makes North Central good is their players understand their roles and when they get their chances, they take advantage of it."
Whitens is averaging 22 points but is also a tremendous distributor and rebounder. Teammates Dawson Bilski (15 ppg) and Bobby Kleiman (11) are also in double digit scoring, while Troy Ekberg and Morgan Cox provide excellent scoring and rebounding inside. Seth Polfus and Marcus Krachinski provide the prime bench support.
"The key for us is having guys off the bench who are willing to accept their roles. It is rare to find those kind of teams nowadays to find kids willing to take a lesser role," said Mercier, who helped out on the sidelines during the team's football playoff run last fall.
The Jets, with six juniors, are averaging 78 points a game while permitting just 41. They also boast a team grade-point average near 3.5.
North Central was seldom threatened this year, trailing at halftime in one game against Mid Peninsula, escaping Crystal Falls with a 61-57 victory March 1 and coming from behind late in the fourth quarter Feb. 9 at Class B Menominee to win 64-60.
Mercier said the game at Menominee, on one of the hardest floors for visiting teams to play, "gave us a good idea where and what we needed to improve. That was our biggest win. We had to respond and Jason Whitens took over. That was our signature win of the year."
While Whitens is the team leader, BR-H coach Schultz said, "Bilski is their best ball player. Cox may be one of the top players in the U.P. on any other team. He is a real unique piece of the team. He is a beast, strong and explosive." While Whitens is the primary focus for opponents, Schultz said if you can slow him down "you get killed by someone else."
Branstrom said of Whitens: "His first step is so quick. He has all the tools. He can hit shots from anywhere. He can do about anything he wants to do (including dunks and triples). He is long and tall and looks like a greyhound on a fast break."
Branstrom says Kleiman "is the glue of that team" and that Bilski "has all the tools. He is a natural. Cox inside is an animal and Ekberg is long and tall and can shoot from anywhere."
It is also tough to defend the Jets because Branstrom said "their passing skills are spectacular. Not just good; spectacular."
The North Central-Onaway winner advances to East Lansing and will meet the winner of Fulton (18-6) and Bellaire (24-1) in Thursday's semifinal at 7:50 p.m.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central celebrates its Class D Regional title win over Crystal Falls Forest Park on Wednesday. (Middle) The Jets downed the Trojans 75-45 in front of a packed crowd. (Photos by Paul Gerard.)
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.)