Jets' Streak Withstands Mightiest Challenge

March 23, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Seth Polfus might still be giggling and shaking his head. He couldn’t believe it either.

Southfield Christian was going to be the greatest threat so far to Powers North Central’s nation-leading 81-game winning streak. Anyone closely following the Jets’ record-setting run knew it.

But no one would’ve guessed Polfus – a 5-foot-9 senior guard, the team’s fifth-leading scorer, coming off three missed jumpers – would be the one to finish victory 82.

With four seconds to play in Thursday’s first Class D Semifinal, the team’s Mr. Basketball finalist double covered, and history seemingly hanging in the Breslin Center air, North Central’s Dawson Bilski sent a halfcourt pass deep to Polfus, who bobbled the ball at the baseline. Recovering, he somehow got up a shot around outstretched arms with one tenth of a second on the clock – and it dropped to give the Jets an 84-83 double overtime victory that could well be remembered as the game of this Finals weekend, even though no title was awarded for winning it.

Regardless, it surely will be remembered as the defining game of North Central’s winning streak, however long it lasts. Southfield Christian won three straight Class D titles from 2012-14, and then played in Class C the last two seasons while the Jets built their legacy. After last season’s Finals, this school year’s classifications were released showing the Eagles headed back to Class D.

“We knew if we made it to this point, they’d be there,” said Jets senior Jason Whitens, that Mr. Basketball finalist. “So everything from that point was getting better each day, preparing for that but not overlooking any opponent because you never know when something’s going to slip up, and teams are after you. We’ve got a big target on our back, and we got the job done.”

North Central (27-0) will next face Buckley in Saturday’s 10 a.m. Class D Final.

Polfus will have a busy weekend. A 4.0 student, he’ll later that afternoon accept one of 32 MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards for his achievements as an all-around athlete and student.

But he wrote his legend with that most improbable shot, the basket of a lifetime for a player who tore a knee ligament two seasons ago and spent last year’s Breslin run mostly holding down the bench.

“I didn’t know how much time was on the clock. I didn’t even know I shot it,” Polfus said. “We set up that play and Dawson was going to be coming down the court, and I knew I was going to be in that position because they were going to go double (Whitens down the sideline), and the ball was coming and I was ‘Oh man, it’s actually coming at me right now.’ And then I lost (the ball) … and I didn’t really know where I was. And then I saw the 6-4 kid coming at me, pump-faked him like I always do when I’m really scared. And then just launched it, and I saw it hit off the rim, thought it was an air ball, and then I just didn’t know what happened.”

“I saw him go wide open,” Bilski added, “and I have enough trust in Seth – I grew up with him – I knew he was going to get the job done.”

Needless to say, none of what happened past halfcourt was coach Adam Mercier’s plan. 

“I think one thing that summarizes these guys, and they’ve always been this way, is that they’re good at adapting,” Mercier said. “You run sets and plays, and sometimes you get in the way coaching. (But) sometimes you let kids make mistakes, and you let kids make plays.”

The Jets had to make a few. Southfield Christian led by 10 with two minutes to go in the third quarter, only to see the Jets tie it back up with a 14-4 run to end the period.

The two teams went back and fourth during the fourth, with the Eagles pushing the game to overtime on sophomore Harlond Beverly’s free throw with six seconds to go in regulation.

“We had a couple chances, they had a couple chances to put it away,” Southfield Christian coach Josh Baker said. “That’s kinda what we’re used to with these guys and the work ethic they put in.”

Southfield Christian got up by three at the end of the first overtime, but Whitens drained a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to push the game to a second extra period. As that one wound down, the Jets led 82-80 with 20 seconds to go after a Bilski blocked shot and free throw.

But Eagles senior Brock Washington fearlessly drilled a 3-pointer with 10 seconds to play, pushing his team ahead by one and setting up Polfus’ dramatic moment. 

“That’s what you want in the playoffs, what you want in the final four – a great game, a great matchup,” Washington said. “We’ll all look back one day and we’ll all be proud of what we did, but we all wanted to get that win.

“Everybody was prepared. Everybody was ready for the challenge. We’ve just gotta make the extra play.”

All five starters scored in double figures for the Eagles (21-6). Junior Bryce Washington had 23 points and Beverly had 22, seven assists and six steals, while Brock Washington added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Trenton Temple had 10 points and 10 rebounds, and sophomore guard Caleb Hunter had 11 points and also seven assists.

Four other Jets average at least 10 points a game, and Polfus finished fifth in the points column again with seven (just above his 5.5 ppg average). Whitens had 31 points and 10 rebounds, Bilski added 23 points and 12 boards, and senior Bobby Kleiman had 14 points and eight rebounds. Polfus was the only starter who didn’t play the full 40 minutes, sitting for a mere three. 

“I think win or lose tonight, they guys have already built their legacy. They didn’t need to win this game to prove anything,” Mercier said. “I’m just so happy for our guys to overcome. I know a lot of people have doubts about us, and deservedly so. We’re a small Class D school with 115 kids, so a lot of people discredit our 81-game winning streak up to this point, because who have you beat?

“That was a question mark coming in. So these kids played the underdog role. At the same time, we’re the two-time defending state champs, we’ve won that many games in a row and we deserve to be here as well. I was just so elated at pushback by our kids tonight … just that pushback, because how many games did we have single digits (during this streak)? So how are our kids going to respond? Those were the questions coming in. And these kids answered them tonight.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Central teammates carry Seth Polfus down the court after his game-winning shot Thursday. (Middle) The Jets’ Jason Whitens works for an opening while the Eagles’ Brock Washington (left) and Harlond Beverly defend. 

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.)