By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Detroit U-D Jesuit’s first trip to the Class A Semifinals in 2014 was filled with awe.
There was no longer awe Friday, and no less excitement – just a laser-like focus on taking the next step for the first time in program history, led by the best player to wear a Cubs uniform.
Senior guard Cassius Winston has played prominent roles in getting U-D Jesuit to the Breslin Center the last three seasons, and his 27 points and 12 rebounds were one of a few reasons the Cubs got past Macomb Dakota 72-51 in a matchup of undefeated teams considered the best in Class A heading into the postseason.
“Like I’ve said before, this is the final to my high school career, and I don’t think I’ve had a successful high school career unless we can win a state championship,” Winston said. “It means the world to finally get over that hump. We came in two years expecting to win it and came up short. Now we made it past that hump to make it to Saturday, so we’ve got to finish it off.”
The Cubs (27-0) will face North Farmington in Saturday’s noon Class A Final.
U-D Jesuit and Dakota were ranked 1 and 2, respectively, by The Associated Press at the end of the regular season, and both were playing to make an MHSAA Final for the first time. Dakota also was riding a perfect run, with the loss Friday ending its season at 26-1.
The Cubs’ 2014 run ended with a 10-point Semifinal loss to eventual runner-up Bloomfield Hills. Last winter, U-D Jesuit edged a point closer, losing by nine to eventual champion Detroit Western International.
The Quarterfinal win over No. 4 Ypsilanti Community on Tuesday to make this third straight trip definitely was worth celebrating. But Cubs coach Pat Donnelly said hoots and hollers were replaced by a quieter focus that showed him again that his players were all business.
“We did discuss the last two years and the feeling that we had leaving here Friday afternoon, and we talked about that throughout the season,” Donnelly said. “That allowed us to win the Quarterfinal and be very focused walking off the floor. … I think you saw the result of that today.”
It was quickly apparent during an 18-3 run that began 2:41 into the game and ended 2:28 into the second quarter with U-D Jesuit up 25-9. The lead grew to as many as 25 points as the Cubs also held Dakota to its second-fewest in a game this season.
The more sizable U-D Jesuit outrebounded the Cougars 39-24 and also shot 58 percent from the floor to Dakota’s 35 percent success rate, which got off to a cool 19-percent first-half start.
Winston, who will next play at Michigan State and was named the state's Mr. Basketball on Monday, made 8 of 16 shots from the floor in front of a Breslin crowd that included a full lower bowl and a number of fans in the upper bowl as well.
“That was probably the hypest game I ever played in,” Dakota junior Jermaine Jackson said. “Cassius is a great player. Mr. Basketball coming in, that’s a tough task.”
Junior Gregory Eboigbodin added 13 points and 18 rebounds for U-D Jesuit. Senior guards Steven Marshall and Tavin Allison led four Dakota players in double figures with 13 points apiece, and Jackson and sophomore Thomas Kithier each scored 12. Kithier also had nine rebounds and four assists.
Donnelly said he told Dakota coach Paul Tocco after not to let a Breslin loss take anything away from an excellent season, as the Cougars were now experiencing what the Cubs had experienced twice before.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we’ve very proud of the season we had,” Tocco said. “I know the experience of losing to Clarkston in the Regional championship last year was a big-time motivator for us to move beyond that point. It motivated our entire program. And we took another step, two steps, beyond that this year.
"To get here, I’m not going to lie – it’s a lot of fun. We tried to treat it as a business-type trip. We weren’t just happy to be here. We just got outplayed tonight.”
The Boys Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.
PHOTOS: (Top) U-D Jesuit’s Ike Eke (1) launches a shot over the outstretched hand of Macomb Dakota’s Thomas Kithier. (Middle) Dakota’s Jermaine Jackson (1) works to get past U-D Jesuit’s Elijah Collins.
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.)