By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Eric Williams, Jr., has learned a lot about becoming a champion these last few seasons.
And as Williams has grown, so too has New Haven’s success on the basketball court.
The Rockets will find themselves playing in their first MHSAA championship game Saturday night, thanks to a 78-49 win over Benton Harbor on Friday in what was the program’s first Semifinal as well.
Williams had 22 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, continuing a closing run that could see him leave an unprecedented legacy at the school. He had 11 points, six rebounds and two steals in the first quarter Friday, setting the tone from the start.
“I just came out looking to be aggressive more, because last game I was just out there. I think I had to come in and prove something,” Williams said.
“I’ve learned I’ve just gotta stay calm and not get stage fright on the big stage. Learning to play defense and what team basketball really is, I think I’ve learned that over the (last) few years.”
New Haven (25-1) will face Ludington in the final game of this season, Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. Class B Final.
Williams, a 6-foot-5 guard, entered this week averaging 20.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.8 steals per game. New Haven coach Tedaro France II said after Friday’s win that upping his defense has made Williams a complete player – and that newfound all-around game has made him “one of the hottest players in the state right now.”
The first Semifinal came three days after the Rockets' third straight Quarterfinal. They are now 72-5 during this three-season run, and Williams’ rise is just an example of how experience has benefitted the team as a whole.
“That’s something as a coach you can’t teach,” France said. “Kids have to play in big games, and sometimes like with these guys, we have to fail first before we have success. And we’ve failed a lot.
“Me, I say to our kids, let’s win today. And in practice each day, we fail. I say, let’s learn from our mistakes. I don’t mind if they make 10 mistakes, but let’s not make the same ones. And I think our kids are learning to play through adversity. They know they can make mistakes, then just go back and get back on defense."
Following Williams’ hot start, New Haven took a 22-10 lead into the second quarter and a 43-19 advantage into halftime. The lead got up to 38 during the fourth quarter before Benton Harbor (22-4) finished on a 9-0 run.
The Tigers entered the postseason ranked No. 5 by The Associated Press – New Haven was No. 3 – and had plenty of success as well this season. But they struggled this time to get into a groove against an opponent that beat them at their own game.
New Haven excelled defensively, holding Benton Harbor to 33 percent shooting and taking advantage of 17 turnovers. The Rockets turned on the transition game, to the point Tigers freshman center Carlos Johnson said, “When we’re running up the floor … they were already up there.”
Benton Harbor also is used to outrebounding its opponents, and Johnson had 10. But as coach Corey Sterling said, it was like New Haven had “two or three Carloses” – the Rockets won the rebounding edge 44-31.
“Pretty much we do pressure defense and get out in transition, but they didn’t turn the ball over and they made shots, and that’s pretty much it,” Sterling said. “It seemed like they had an answer for everything we threw at them tonight.”
In addition to Johnson being one of the most highly-regarded freshmen in the state – and finishing with nine points and five blocks to go with those 10 boards – the game also featured one of the state's top sophomores in New Haven forward Romeo Weems, who tallied 14 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Sophomore guard Roland Jeffery II added 10 points for the Rockets.
Junior guard Elijah Baxter scored 14 points to top Benton Harbor, which played in its second Semifinal in four seasons – and perhaps began a string of championship weekend trips to come.
“We’ve only got two seniors really in our rotation, and this is a good experience for guys like Elijah, Carson, Shawn (Hopkins) and Dennie (Brown),” Sterling said. “Now we know how to get here … now let’s work hard in the summer to take the necessary steps to try to win it all.”
PHOTOS: (Top) New Haven’s Eric Williams, Jr., (2) looks to pass over Benton Harbor’s Carlos Johnson. (Middle) The Rockets’ A.J. Crawford III splits a pair of Tigers defenders during Friday’s Class B Semifinal.
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.)