By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – First one and then a second starter fouled out of Saturday’s Class D Final as Southfield Christian tried to catch Adrian Lenawee Christian with only a few minutes remaining.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they had a few more players left with experience finishing a championship run.
Southfield Christian had never during the last three seasons played from situation it faced early Saturday afternoon. But a number of its players had helped win one or both of two straight MHSAA championships – and that no doubt assisted those left on the floor as they claimed a third.
Junior guard Bakari Evelyn scored five of his game-high 28 points after teammates Lindsay Hunter IV and Damarco White fouled out in the fourth quarter, and 2013 championship game standout Marlo Brown also scored during the same stretch as Southfield Christian claimed its third straight MHSAA title with a 63-61 nail-biter over Adrian Lenawee Christian.
“It was tough once I saw we were losing Lin and Damarco for a few quarters. My whole objective was to keep the game as close as possible,” Evelyn said. “I thought we were going to come out with the win, through the whole game and everything. It was good to finally be right.”
Evelyn, who started last season’s Class D Final and came off the bench in 2012 as a freshman, also had seven rebounds, four assists and four steals and handled the ball almost exclusively after Hunter fouled out with 16 points, 3:47 left to play and the Eagles trailing 54-51.
The 6-foot-6 White fouled out just more than a minute later with only two points, but five rebounds and five blocked shots after spending most of his morning defending Lenawee Christian’s trio of 6-7 post players.
But Evelyn had plenty of help down the stretch. Sophomore guard Jalen Bouldes played only 38 seconds during the closing minutes, but scored, was fouled and made the ensuing free throw to give Southfield Christian a 56-55 lead with 3:09 to play. Brown scored a minute later to push the lead to three. Evelyn then made five of six free-throw attempts over the final 1:13 to keep Lenawee Christian just a few points short.
“We’ve never had this where all of our main guys were in foul trouble. Other guys like Harding (Fears) and Benny (Cookinham) had to step up,” Eagles coach Clennie Brundidge said. "I’d put (Hunter and White) back in here and they’d get another foul. I told them that at the end, our depth was going to win this.”
Fears grabbed eight rebounds in 12 minutes and junior guard Kameron Garner – a starter last season who this winter came off the bench – had five points and five rebounds despite taking a hard fall during the first half. Brown had only four points, but both baskets put Southfield Christian up at points in the game.
Lenawee Christian (21-5), an honorable mention in the Class D poll heading into the postseason, came back from an early nine-point deficit to make it back-and-forth over the final three quarters.
Senior center Kingsley had 22 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the floor and with sophomore forward Maxwell (11 points) allowed the Cougars to slow the game’s tempo and keep Southfield Christian’s usually active fastbreak to only 11 points.
“We wanted them to come beat us at our game, and I think for the most part we were able to control tempo,” Lenawee Christian coach Scott McKelvey said. “Our free-throw shooting hurt us (19 of 31), but we got opportunities and we couldn’t ask for anything more than that. It’s a team that probably no one in the state thought we could beat.”
“If we could’ve had two more minutes,” Kingsley added, "I’m pretty confident we could’ve changed something.”
Senior forward Grant Hohlbein, also set to accept an MHSAA Scholar-Athlete Award later Saturday, added 15 points for Lenawee Christian. The Cougars’ Semifinal on Thursday was its first since 2001, and the championship game berth was their first ever.
Brundidge said that after seeing Lenawee Christian in a summer game, he knew that was the team his Eagles would face if they returned for a third straight Final. Southfield Christian’s only loss this season was to Class A No. 5 Saginaw Arthur Hill, and it finished 26-1 and 74-5 over the last three seasons – good to tie for eighth-most wins over a three-season span.
“I’m in awe,” Hunter said. “My freshman year we lost in the first round of Districts to (Bloomfield Hills) Roeper, went 2-19. I never thought we’d be sitting here in this position with three state championships.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Southfield Christian’s Bakari Evelyn (22) works to get to the rim around Adrian Lenawee Christian’s Maxwell and Grant Hohlbein. (Middle) Lenawee Christian’s Nick Mewborn dribbles upcourt with Southfield Christian’s Kameron Garner defending.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Southfield Christian uses a block to start a fast break, resulting in a basket – and one – for Jalen Bouldes. The free throw gave the Eagles the lead to stay in the Class D finale. (2) With 12 seconds to go, Grant Hohlbein of Lenawee Christian scores on an inbounds pass and draws a Southfield Christian foul. Hohlbein completed the three-point play to pull his team within a point at 62-61.
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.)