By Tim Miller
Mio teacher, former coach and graduate
If you were to travel to northern Michigan to canoe or fish the famous AuSable River, you might find yourself in a small town named Mio.
With one stoplight and a host of small businesses that line Main Street, Mio is well known for its access to the AuSable River and its high school sports team. And like so many small towns across America, the school is the main focal point of the community. Mio is the home of the Mio Thunderbolts, which is the mascot of the only school in town.
On Saturday, December 29, head boys basketball coach Ty McGregor and fans from around the state gathered in the Mio gymnasium to welcome back two former boys basketball teams. The two teams being honored that night were the 1989 state championship team who went undefeated and the 1978 boys basketball team who made it to the Semifinals.
As we stood there watching the former players of those teams, and coach of the 1978 team Paul Fox, make their way across the gym floor, we were reminded of the deceased players Cliff Frazho, Rob Gusler, Dave Narloch and John Byelich – the coach of the 1989 state championship team – that were no longer with us. All of them leaving us way too soon and a reminder of how fragile life can be.
The ’89 team would be a story in itself. That team was the most dominating team in Mio’s history.
After recognizing these two teams and visiting with many of them in the hallway, I stepped into the gym and began looking at the banners hanging from our walls. I found the state championship banner that the ’89 team won and the ’78 banner, and I began remembering those teams and how they brought so much excitement, happiness and pride to our small community.
Like so many schools throughout the state, the banners are a reminder of a team’s success and the year that it was accomplished. It’s a topic of conversation as former players share their memories with others about the year they earned their spot in history.
However, hanging on the south wall of the gym, all by itself, is a banner that only hangs from the walls of the Mio AuSable gym. No other school in Michigan has one like it. It has a weathered look, and the color has slightly faded over time. It’s been the conversation piece at deer camp, restaurants, and any other social gathering concerning Mio sports history. Basketball players throughout the state have dreamed of taking it away, but none have succeeded. It’s been hanging there for close to 40 years.
Mio AuSable School
MHSAA Career Scoring Champion
1976 – 1979
That banner represents something far greater than one person’s accomplishments. The story of how it got there and why it hasn’t left is a lesson that every sports team should learn – such a rare story in teamwork, coaching, parental support, the will to win, and the coach who masterfully engineered the plan.
The night Jay Smith broke the state scoring record, the Mio gym was packed with spectators from all parts of Michigan. The game was stopped and people rose to their feet to acknowledge the birthplace of the new record holder. After clapping and cheering for what seemed like an eternity, the ceremony was over and the game went on.
Although I wasn’t on the team, like so many people from Mio, I followed that group of basketball players from gym to gym throughout northern Michigan.
I had a front row seat in the student section where every kid who wasn’t on the team spent their time cheering for the Thunderbolts.
We were led by our conductor, “Wild Bill,” who had a knack for writing the lyrics to many of the cheers the student body used to disrupt our opponents or protest a referee’s call.
The student section was also home to the best pep band around. During home games they played a variety of tunes that kept the gym rocking. They were an integral part of the excitement that took place in that gym, game after game.
I also ate lunch and hung out at school with some of those guys. I got to hear the details of the game, the strategy, the battles between players, and the game plan for the next rival’s team.
I remember the school spirit, the pep assemblies, and the countless hours our faithful cheerleaders put into making and decorating our halls and gym with posters.
It was like a fourth of July parade that happened every Tuesday and Friday night. The bleachers were filled with people anxiously awaiting tip off.
Showing up late meant you were stuck trying to get a glimpse of the game from the hallway.
So here’s what I saw. Jay Smith was a tall, skinny kid who could shoot the ball with such accuracy that it must have been miserable for opposing coaches and players. Once it was in his hands, they had two options: watch him score or foul him and hope that he missed the free throws.
If you fouled him, you gambled wrong. He stood there and calmly shot the ball through the hoop with the sound of the net swishing as opposing players and coaches watched helplessly.
If you chose to let him shoot, you lost that bet too.
He shot often and rarely did he miss. It was no secret to our opponents or Jay’s teammates who would be doing the bulk of the shooting in Mio.
The game plan was simple: get the ball to Jay and watch him score. The Thunderbolts were coached by Paul Fox, a teacher at the school. He was demanding and intense as a coach, and his players played hard and respected him both in school and on the court. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to coach a couple of high school teams that I realized and recognized what an incredible job he did.
I also realized what an outstanding group of players he was blessed to coach.
He was a step ahead of everybody.
Like Bill Belichick the famous coach of the New England Patriots, Paul Fox understood how to build a team around one person. He convinced everyone on the team that the way to the promised land was through the scoring of Jay. However, the type of players who buy into such a plan have to be special. And they were. Jay was blessed his first two years on varsity. He was surrounded by a very talented group of ball players who allowed him to be successful.
His last two teams weren’t as talented, but just as special.
Most of those guys were classmates of mine, so here’s what I can tell you.
Not one time during that stretch did I ever hear one of them complain about playing time. There was no pouting on the bench or kicking it because you were taken out.
No one complained the next day about their stats. They were happy to win, and if that meant Jay shooting most of the time, that was okay with them. After the game, no one ran to the scorer’s table to check their stats. Or went off in the corner of the locker room to act like a preschooler in timeout. Their parents didn’t march over to the coach and demand answers on why their son wasn’t playing or shooting more. Players didn’t quit the team because their individual needs weren’t being met. There were expectations from the coach, the parents, and everyone else involved. After each home game, the whole community gathered at the local bar/ bowling alley. Players, parents, and fans were happy their team had won and celebrated together in the victory. It was a simple blueprint that every sports team should follow.
Forget about your own personal gratification and do what’s best for the team.
It’s a lost concept these days. And the question many of us in Mio talk about from time to time is will the record ever be broken?
There’s more than one factor to consider when discussing the topic.
Jay set that record long before the 3-point shot was implemented.
Can a coach like Paul Fox assemble a group of players who would put their ego aside and desire winning more than their own personal satisfaction?
Can you find a humble kid like Jay who would crush the dreams of opposing teams with his shooting ability?
Can you find a group of parents out there willing to watch a kid like him put on a show, game after game, and not be offended?
Can you find a student body like the one we had to fill the student section with loud, rowdy fans?
The scoring banner represents the scoring accomplishments of Jay. And to his credit, I never once heard him brag about his success on the court.
He simply said, “We won.”
But that banner represents more than points. It’s an amazing story of what happens when a group of people come together with a common cause – the will to win.
What we saw during that time was special!
The state scoring record was set by Jay and a large list of supporting teammates who helped him.
He was fortunate to have a coach who understood how to manage and convince a group of players to buy into his system.
A group of parents who understood what was going on and supported it.
A student body section that rattled the best players from the other teams game after game.
A dedicated group of cheerleaders who spent countless hours making posters to decorate our school with pride.
A pep band that brought their best sound, game after game.
A teaching staff who understood how a bunch of kids wanted to get ready for the next big game, and gave us their blessing.
It was the culture of our school and community. Get ready for the game.
The anticipation, those long lines waiting outside in the cold, those packed gyms, that noise.
It was all part of it.
Perhaps somewhere in Michigan a group of coaches, players, parents, teachers, and fans could copy the formula from the ’70s that brought our team, school, and town so much success.
If a coach can find a group of players that only care about one thing, and that’s winning, it can be done. Doing that will require a group of people who think they understand the concept to execute it. As a society we see it at every level of sports: the “I” syndrome, the selfishness, the lack of respect for coaches and teammates. It’s the fiber that destroys any chance for success.
My guess is the banner will hang in our gym until someone in the school decides to replace the old one. Perhaps Jay’s children or grandchildren will want the old one to add to their family memorabilia. And after the new one is hung up and another forty years have passed, someone else will write a story about the banner that continues to hang in Mio’s gym.
NOTE: Jay Smith went on to play at Bowling Green and Saginaw Valley State University, and coach at Kent State, University of Michigan, Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Detroit Mercy, and currently as head coach at Kalamazoo College. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer and faces another round of radiation treatments after undergoing surgery in September. Click for a recent report by WOOD TV.
PHOTOS: (Top) The banner celebrating Jay Smith’s state high school career scoring record continues to greet fans at Mio High School’s gym. (Middle) Smith was a standout for the Thunderbolts through his graduation in 1979. (Below) Smith scored 2,841 points over four seasons, averaging 29 points per game.
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.)