By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Kent City doesn’t have the star power or pizzazz normally associated with an undefeated basketball team.
In fact, the most flashy thing about the Eagles is the loud pants worn each game by third-year head coach Dave Ingles – which were an especially gaudy half-pink and half-burgundy disaster that would have made Al Czervik from Caddyshack blush during Wednesday’s 48-38 District Semifinal win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian at Ravenna.
“I lost a bet with the kids last year and had to wear pink pants for a game,” explained Ingles, who has guided Kent City to a 21-0 record and improbable No. 2 state ranking in Class C.
“Since then, it’s become a thing. If I wore khaki pants to a game, our crowd would boo me out of the gym. So now I spend half my coaching salary and half my time finding pants for each game.”
If nothing else, they bring a little shine to an otherwise throwback, working-class basketball team devoid of superstars that just finds a way to win every game with suffocating defense, outstanding shooting and unselfish team play.
The Eagles pulled another one out Wednesday against tradition-rich Western Michigan Christian, which slowed the game to a crawl and led 15-12 at halftime. It looked like a monumental upset might be in the works as Kent City was stone cold from the field, and its standout backcourt duo of senior Fraser Wilson and sophomore Eli Carlson was held scoreless in the first half.
But just like they have all season, the Eagles stayed calm and found an answer.
This time it was a 10-0 run to start the second half, keyed by three steals on the defensive end and a pair of 3-pointers by Carlson, which turned the game around. KC then sealed the win by knocking down 14 of 16 free throws in the final 2:05.
“We definitely don’t panic or yell and scream at each other,” explained Wilson, who averages 14 points per game and shoots nearly 50 percent from 3-point range. “Our shots weren’t falling, but we stayed calm. We believe in each other.”
Kent City repeated as champion of the Central State Activities Association Silver, which isn’t known as a basketball-rich conference. More impressive is the Eagles won all 10 of their nonconference games, with nine of those 10 wins coming against Class A or Class B opponents.
Ingles points to his team’s 49-44 win Feb. 3 over Class A Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills, a game played in an arena environment at the DeltaPlex before a Grand Rapids Drive game, as a key to the season. The Eagles had to rally for that victory to get to 14-0, and ever since have experienced tournament-like pressure to get to 20-0.
Since they have been dealing with the extra scrutiny and the focus on winning every game for more than a month, Carlson said the team is more prepared for March Madness.
“The pressure was getting that 20-0,” explained Carlson, who also averages 14 points and shoots better than 50 percent from the floor. “Now, we were 0-0. Everyone is 0-0, starting a new season. We don’t take it as pressure.”
The question now is how high can the Eagles fly?
Kent City will be shooting for its 13th District championship since 1950 on Friday when it takes on West Michigan Conference champion North Muskegon at 6 p.m. at Ravenna. A victory there would vault the Eagles into the MHSAA Class C Regional tournament at Beal City next week.
The Eagles have won only one Regional title since 1950, in 2004, when they made it all the way to the Class C semifinals at Michigan State University before losing to Charlevoix.
The program has steadily improved each year since Ingles took the reins prior to the 2015-2016 season. KC finished 13-8 in 2016 and 14-7 last year, getting knocked out of the tournament both years by Muskegon Heights Academy, which is now in Class D.
The team was expected to be good this season after losing just one regular contributor off last year’s conference champion, but no one expected a quantum leap to 20-0 and a lofty state ranking.
“It’s special what this team has been able to do,” said Inglis, who is assisted by Phil Stevens and Gabe Hall. “This is not a physically impressive team in any way, shape or form. Our success starts with defense and with nobody caring about their own stats. They just want to win.”
The guard duo of Wilson and Carlson, along with senior Jace Dailey, has provided the leadership all season long. Brendan Geers, a 6-foot-3 junior, is the closest thing the Eagles have to a big man and a workhorse inside. Hunter Nelson, Cody Bowers, Gavin Mead, Miguel Arechiga and sophomore call-up Max Hudson are also key contributors.
Another key factor pushing this unbeaten team along is a rabid fan base, which has been packing “The Nest” at home games all year and is following its team in “Hoosiers”-like fashion now that the MHSAA Tournament has begun. Kent City fans packed the parking lot and gymnasium at Ravenna well before Wednesday’s 5:30 p.m. tip-off and are expected to do the same for Friday’s showdown against North Muskegon.
“There is definitely a buzz more than normal around town,” said Wilson after Wednesday’s District win. “It’s fun to be a part of it. We’ve got our perfect regular season already; now we’ll just see how long we can keep it going.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Senior Fraser Wilson, who is shooting almost 50 percent from 3-point range this season, surveys the defense. (Middle) Sophomore Eli Carlson is only 5-5 but has come up big as a leading scorer for Kent City this season with 14 points per game. (Below) Third-year Kent City coach Dave Ingles wears the net after the Eagles completed a 20-0 regular season March 1 with a victory over visiting Kentwood Grand River Prep. (Photos courtesy of Kent City Basketball/Mary Wilson.)
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.)