By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Things are looking up for the Spring Lake boys basketball team.
The Lakers have raised the bar in recent years, making their mark on the statewide level with two appearances in the MHSAA Class B Quarterfinals over the last three seasons.
This winter, led by a trio of tall, versatile and extremely intelligent captains in Sam Johnson (6-foot-8), Griffin Lorimer (6-4) and Jack VanWingen (6-2), Spring Lake has stepped up its schedule and its game in its quest to get back to the quarters – and perhaps further.
“When it gets to tournament time, it comes down to playing your best basketball of the year and making a run,” said Johnson, who scored a game-high 16 points on Wednesday as Spring Lake doubled up host Sparta, 50-25, for an Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue win.
“A big key in March is experience and leadership, and we definitely have plenty of that.”
Spring Lake (12-3, 6-2 in the O-K Blue), which hosts Allendale on Friday night in another conference game, showed it was going to be a force to be reckoned with early this year when it posted back-to-back tight wins over a pair of bigger schools in Rockford (48-46) and rival Grand Haven (69-66 in double overtime).
Bill Core, in his 17th year as Spring Lake’s head coach, said that in addition to good height on the front line, this may also be the smartest team he’s ever coached. Core said that intelligence helps this team make adjustments on the fly and smart decisions when the game is on the line.
“Those three captains are all 4.0 kids, and they’re great role models,” said Core, who is assisted by Randy White. “They have high basketball IQs, and I trust them to make decisions and figure things out.”
Johnson is the player who draws the most attention from opposing teams at 6-8, with the ability to post up and step out and knock down mid-range jump shots.
Johnson, who plans to play basketball next year at Claremont McKenna College in California, leads the Lakers with 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. And don’t try to hack him and send him to the free-throw line. Johnson is shooting a team-best 80 percent on free throws.
The most versatile of the three captains is Lorimer, who is hard to miss with his curly blonde hair and red shoes. He creates matchup problems with his inside-outside game, and currently averages 10 points and seven rebounds per contest.
Johnson and Lorimer are a 1-2 punch up front that most teams can’t match.
“We know one of the strengths of this team is that we’re deep in the post, and that makes it hard for teams to just focus on one guy,” explained Lorimer. “It’s good to have that balance. Plus, we’ve played together so long that we just know where the other guys are going to be.”
Lorimer’s versatility was perhaps best displayed last year at team camp in Rockford, where he was assigned to guard one of the state’s best big men in 6-9 Xavier Tillman (now at Michigan State) one day, then came back the next day and had to check standout guard Matt Beachler (now at Central Michigan).
But the most important of Spring Lake’s three captains might be VanWingen, a slasher who is the team’s best at breaking down defenses. VanWingen is adept at finding Johnson and Lorimer inside as well as kicking the ball back out to the arc to shooters Ben Arteaga, Kyle Wiersma and sophomore Cayden Ball.
“I think we’re a very well-balanced team,” said VanWingen, the top returning scorer off last year’s who is currently averaging 11.2 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. “Our big guys get a lot of attention, but we also have guards who can shoot it. It’s important that we trust each other and know that everyone is going to do their job.”
Spring Lake’s senior trio has been too much for almost everybody to handle, with the main exception being conference rival and possible Regional opponent Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which is ranked No. 6 in Class B.
The two teams met on Jan. 5 at Spring Lake in a much-anticipated showdown, but the Cougars swarmed the hosts in a lopsided 80-39 victory. The Lakers were much more competitive when the two teams played last week in Grand Rapids, but still lost, 59-40.
“We improved by 22 points the second game, and if we improve by another 22 points in the next game, we’ll win by three,” quipped Core, who knows his team will be a huge underdog if it’s fortunate enough to win the District it is hosting next month and possibly get another shot at GRCC in the Class B Regional opener at Grand Rapids West Catholic.
The Lakers can gain confidence by looking back to last year, when they lost to GR Catholic twice during the regular season, then stunned the Cougars in the Regional championship game. That win put Spring Lake in the Quarterfinals for the second time in three years, after it made a surprise run to the school’s first-ever boys basketball Quarterfinals appearance in 2015.
Lorimer believes this year’s team has the potential to make it three Quarterfinal appearances in four years.
“I really do think we have another level we haven’t reached yet,” said Lorimer, who plans to play next year at Trine University in Angola, Ind. “We may have for short stretches, but we haven’t strung it together for a whole game. That’s what we’re working on.”
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) Spring Lake senior Griffin Lorimer battles along the baseline in a victory earlier this season against Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Middle) Spring Lake senior Jack VanWingen glides in for a bucket in a victory over Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. (Below) Spring Lake senior Sam Johnson goes up for a shot during the Lakers' thrilling double-overtime win over neighboring rival Grand Haven earlier this season. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)