By Mike Spencer
Special for Second Half
MAPLE CITY – With the dawn this winter of the 2020s, Don Miller is coaching high school basketball in a seventh decade.
That’s rarefied air in Michigan High School Athletic Association circles, but it’s an atmosphere the 73-year-old longtime Maple City Glen Lake basketball coach has enjoyed and plans to continue as long as his health, family and Laker nation lets him.
“I have a passion for the bouncing of balls in a gym,” said Miller, who made his coaching debut at Howell in 1969 but then spent five decades guiding the Lakers’ ship. “The worst headache I may have disappears with that sound as I walk into a gym. The blood pressure goes down and the pleasure goes up – practices or games.”
Miller, admittedly the last man on his varsity basketball team at Southfield High during his playing days, coached a lot of good teams and players at Glen Lake during his varsity tenure (1973-2004) when he posted a 523-210 record.
“I didn’t have a lot of basketball skill, but I was a basketball junkie who got the bug to coach and I got better over the years,” Miller said. “I never scored a basket over the years, but I had a lot of players who made me look good. The kids loved the game and had the passion, and we had a spinning wheel of success breeding success.”
A Michigan State University grad, Miller enjoyed watching the Spartans practice after classes, although he never could have forecasted he’d become a Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan (BCAM) Hall of Famer in 1998 or enjoy decades of leading drills.
“Basketball is all about great chemistry, and being with young people sharing a game we love is just wonderful,” Miller said. “And to be able to do it this long is a gift, not a job. I am truly blessed to be in a gym for three hours a day.”
Today, there’s just a handful of active MHSAA coaches with Miller’s experience. Ironically, one of them is Beaverton’s Roy Johnston. Miller was an assistant of Johnston’s back in the early 1970s.
“I’m shocked to see Don still coaching,” said Cody Inglis, a former Suttons Bay athletic director/coach who worked Miller’s camps for a decade and went on to serve as athletic director at Traverse City Central and currently as an MHSAA assistant director. “But it shows that if there’s something you are good at, and something that you are passionate about, that you are never too old to do it.
“Don’s been a wonderful role model for coaching, perseverance and doing it the right way.”
Former player Todd Ciolek, who also has had a child play for Miller, concurred.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Ciolek said of Miller’s tenure. “But when you have a love for something, it makes it easy to do. For him, he’s got a love for this and I think it comes naturally.”
Miller guided the Lakers boys team to the Class D title in 1977 and runner-up finish in 1996. His teams also reached the MHSAA Semifinals twice. His teams won six Regionals, 16 Districts and 14 conference titles.
He stepped down as Glen Lake’s main man after the 2004 season due to health issues, needing a pacemaker and a stent. He continued running his summer basketball camps and became a volunteer assistant coach for former all-state player Todd Hazelton in 2007.
When Rich Ruelas became head coach in 2015, he asked Miller to be his junior varsity coach. Miller did that for three seasons and is now an assistant varsity coach.
“I was reborn!” Miller said. “I don’t eat and sleep basketball like I used to, but I love my three hours each day with these young men who share this common passion. It’s been a lifesaver.
“My role is advisor and listener,” he added. “But watching Rich, he’s me 30 years ago. I love feeding off his intensity.”
“I truly enjoy having Coach Miller as part of the program that he helped build,” Ruelas said. “There is nothing he hasn't gone through as a coach, and I have relied on him for advice over the past five years.
“He just knows the game so well and has made such an impact on the lives of his former players and campers with his ability to teach life lessons through basketball. We are lucky to have a Hall of Fame coach as part of our program, and I don't take it for granted.”
Ruelas and Miller, a retired educator, not only get together three hours in a gym daily, they routinely have “Mornings with Miller,” on the phone as Ruelas makes his 30-minute commute to school.
Ruelas said Miller has already given him some memorable moments – the unbeaten junior varsity team in 2018 that Miller coached, assistance with the Lakers’ 2018 Finals run (Glen Lake finished Class C runner-up) and an opportunity to meet MSU coach Tom Izzo.
“What sticks out to me most is that we cannot go anywhere in the state without Don running into a former camper or player,” Ruelas said. “He has made such a lasting impact on so many, and it is evident in his relationships with his former players over the past seven decades.
“I'm not sure how long he will continue to be on the bench with me, but I know he still has a lot of fire in his belly. As long as he has permission from his wife and is able, I expect him to be there.”
One of Miller’s trademarks is teaching life lessons first and basketball second.
“Don was a unique coach,” Ciolek said. “He wasn’t a coach of basketball first; he was a coach of ethics and morals and basketball came second.
“Most coaches start with some technique, but he started with the word respect and then engrained in us that there was more beyond basketball. He instilled a set of values in us that ultimately led to victories.”
While Miller has had decades of success, some of the losses were devastating.
“You remember the losses more than the wins, and three last-second losses are forever etched in my brain,” said Miller noting a 1978 loss to Mio and Jay Smith in the Regional Final at Gaylord, a buzzer-beating in 1988 by eventual Class D champ Northport and the 1996 Semifinal loss to Wyoming Tri-unity Christian. “The pain and tears and disappointment of these three were great memories. But losses are part of the game and the boys, now men on those teams, have made me very proud ever since.”
Miller said he’s seen a lot of things change for the better since he started coaching. Players are starting younger and getting better coaching earlier, and that has led to improved talent and team play. There are also nicer gyms and uniforms, and Miller loves the idea of boys sharing the spotlight with girls programs.
His disdains, however, are that larger schools today have kids who tend to specialize in one sport earlier, and the crowd of negative parents is growing.
“Our kids play several sports, and I feel it makes them better,” Miller said. “Playing for other coaches in other sports increases competitiveness and team play. You learn to be a different role player, and that carries over into life. “
Miller said credit for his decades of success goes to his supportive wife, Sandy, and the blind luck of having Paul Christiansen as his first junior varsity coach.
“Paul was my organizer, critic, conscience and cohort for three decades,” Miller said. “He is a Hall of Fame track coach but the real wind beneath my wings. None of this happens without Paul.”
Both Miller and Christiansen were honored by BCAM in 1998, with Miller going into the HOF and Christiansen going into the Hall of Honor.
Miller also credits a number of coaching mentors including the late Larry Glass, a former Big Ten men’s coach and girls basketball coach at Leland, and great players and coaches he recruited to help at his summer camps in Wolverine and Glen Lake.
While Miller savors the friendships with other coaches, he’ll forever cherish his former players, who reciprocated their love by building him a man cave and basketball museum after he retired in 2004 and show up for weekly games of basketball at the Glen Arbor Town Hall – a 40-year-old tradition – with fellowship afterward.
“They call, email and treat me to meals out which really is too bad for my figure but great for my ego and friendships,” Miller admitted. “I love my boys (now men) and for that, I am truly the luckiest.”
“I was fortunate enough to be coached by Don when he was just starting out at Howell,” said Tom Murray, former Bay City John Glenn and Standish-Sterling Central coach. “He changed my life and many of my classmate’s lives.
“Don’s touched so many lives, it’s incredible. He instilled a lifelong love of basketball in me. He is a fantastic coach and man.”
Mike Spencer is a former MHSAA referee and sportswriter for the Bay City Times, Midland Daily News and Leelanau Enterprise and freelancer for both the Enterprise and the Traverse City Record Eagle.
Seven Decades of Miller Highlights
1960s – Last man on the Southfield High team. Watching MSU practice after class without a clue that he would coach someday. Getting hired in 1969 as the freshman coach at Howell because no else wanted the job and coaching Morey Ray, his first great player.
1970s – Coaching the 1977 Class D championship season and the slow evolution over the years of the front line of seniors Dave Prentice, Geof Kotila and Rick Baillergeon, who started for three years. Being down three points, without the ball and 30 seconds to go, and winning the Final by two on a shot with one second left against the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Detroit East Catholic, 70-68.
1980s – Keeping the ball rolling and seeing four of those starters – from the 1977 and 1978 teams – become captains of a college team. Reaching the quarters in 1980, the semis in 1981, 1984 and 1985. Standouts included Bob Sutherland (’80), Bill Zolman and Kevin Crinion (’81), Ron Winowiecki and Dan Witkowski (’84), and Mike Crinion and Ross Hazelton (’85). Beating No. 1 Bear Lake at Traverse City Central in front of 2,800 fans – “Loudest gym. Teamwork over talent and Mike Crinion was amazing.”
1990s – Keeping ball rolling as elementary kids became high school stars. Reaching the quarters in 1991 and 1995 and semis in 1996. Standouts included Micah Deegan and Bryan Fosmore (’91), Todd Ciolek and Max Miller (’95), and Jamie Mazurek and Greg Aylsworth (‘96). Semifinal upset of reigning Class D champ Detroit Holy Redeemer, 81-66.
2000s – Retired in 2004, but with recent adoring memories of 2002 league and District championship team led by Chris Milliron and Steve Walker. Team showed great improvement in ability and attitude, avenging losses to Suttons Bay and Traverse City St. Francis with 24-point victories.
2010s – Returned in 2015 as assistant coach to Rich Ruelas and coached the boys junior varsity to 55-5 record over his first two seasons with three sophomores and a freshman on the varsity. Posted two 20-0 seasons.
2020 – Still coaching as an assistant.
PHOTOS: (Top) Glen Lake assistant boys basketball coach Don Miller, with captains Ben Kroll (left) and Reece Hazelton, point to the plaque declaring his legendary status in the program. (2) Miller confers with a pair of players during the 1977 Class D championship season. (3) Miller and his wife Sandy. (4) Miller stands among the many mementos decorating his basketball museum built by former players. (5) Miller stands with longtime assistant Paul Christiansen, holding a ball commemorating Miller’s 400th coaching win in 1994. (Photos courtesy of Don Miller and the Leelanau Enterprise.)
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.)