By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
WYOMING – Wyoming boys basketball coach Thom Vander Klay isn’t as worried as most coaches when his team is involved in a tightly-contested game late in the fourth quarter.
The senior-dominated and seasoned Wolves typically find a way to come out on top.
“We’re just kind of gritty, and we don’t get rattled,” the longtime coach said of his 15-1 squad. “We keep plugging away and taking our swings. It’s one of those teams where they are not afraid to lose and so I don’t think you will find moments that are too big, because that’s not really on the agenda. They are fearless in that regard.”
Wyoming is arguably the best team in the Grand Rapids area and proved it during the last week with a pair of key wins over ranked opponents.
The Wolves rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat previously unbeaten Grand Rapids Christian 62-61 last week and then topped Ottawa-Kent Conference Red champion Hudsonville 57-50 on Tuesday.
Senior Monte Parks drained a pair of free throws with six seconds remaining to help avenge Wyoming’s only loss of the season against the Eagles.
“That was really big, of course, and it was just a tough game,” Vander Klay said. “We shot 26 percent from the floor, and we struggled offensively but found a way to pull it out at the end there.
“We stuck to our motto of not giving up, not quitting and keep playing hard.”
The Wolves’ suffocating defense forced 25 Grand Rapids Christian turnovers, and they took care of the basketball with only five turnovers.
“Those were big wins for us, and we needed those,” Wyoming’s 5-foot-10 senior guard Menalito McGee said. “It just boosted our confidence a lot, too, knowing we can play with anybody in the area.”
Wyoming’s success this season can be attributed to a senior class that played extensive minutes last season.
Eight seniors returned, and their entire starting five (McGee, Parks, Diego Ledesma, Demarion Parks, and Quincy Williams) is made up of seniors.
“They are very experienced, and they have a ton of practice in close games,” Vander Klay said. “And practice-wise it’s so easy because we can draw things up in a timeout and mention something on the fly, and they can pick it up. We have great senior leadership.”
McGee said the seniors learned valuable lessons last year.
“Last year we would lose the close games, so this year we’re more prepared and we know how to close out a game, whether by hitting free throws or making plays,” he said. “We just do whatever it takes to win, and as seniors we have to lead the team as a unit and lead by example on and off the court.”
The Wolves went 10-12 last season, but elevated their play during the second half of the season before bowing out to East Kentwood in the District Final.
“Basically it’s the same team as last year, and the last month of the season we were as good as anybody,” Vander Klay said. “January wasn’t very good, but the kids persevered through that, and once we got to February we started to play well.”
The late-season push, coupled with the bevy of returnees, raised the bar for this season.
“We definitely had high expectations coming into the season, and we knew what we could do,” McGee said. “We started climbing in February last year, and just building and winning more games. We knew we could hang with anybody this year.”
Wyoming plays an up-tempo brand of basketball and is averaging more than 70 points per game.
The Wolves possess an array of capable scorers with McGee as the catalyst.
He’s averaging nearly 25 points per game and recently etched his name in the MHSAA record book with a pair of stellar shooting performances.
On Jan. 28, McGee scored 45 points and made 12 3-pointers in a win over Middleville Thornapple-Kellogg. His were the most 3-pointers made in a single game in O-K Conference history.
Less than two weeks later, he connected on 14 3-pointers against Wayland and finished with 48 points.
McGee’s 14 3-pointers placed him second on the MHSAA all-time list. He trails only Matt Kitchen of Mayville, who made 15 against Bay City All Saints in 2001.
“Against T-K I hit my first one early in the game and came right back with a heat check and made another, so I knew from there that it was going to be a good night,” McGee said. “The Wayland game was the same thing. I think I had seven 3-pointers at halftime, and the bucket just got bigger.”
Vander Klay has had several elite 3-point shooters pass through the Wyoming/Wyoming Park program, including his son, Chase, and former Michigan State standout Drew Neitzel.
“He’s a competitor, and obviously, a very good shooter,” Vander Klay said of McGee. “Chase was one of our better shooters, but he didn’t have all the skills that Menalito has. He’s not very tall, but he’s slippery and can go by you. He sees the floor and gets it to the open man.
“He’s more like Drew in that regard. You have to step up and guard him, and when you do, he can make you pay that way. His decision-making is quite good, and he knows he can score from anywhere. His leadership is similar to Drew as well. He’s very vocal and knows how to talk to his teammates to motivate them.”
McGee credits his improved all-around game to time spent in the gym during the offseason.
“This year I got faster and stronger and added a pull-up jumper in the offseason,” McGee said. “I like to score the ball more, but also look for the open teammate and make the extra pass.”
A three-year varsity player, McGee also recently surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career.
“That was very special, and it was a good moment that I will remember for the rest of my life,” McGee said. “It’s an honor, and it was a lot of hard work. It isn’t easy to do, and you have to earn that. I put the work in.”
The Wolves have four regular-season games remaining and then will turn their attention to making a deep run in the MHSAA Tournament.
“The first goal is to finish conference and win the O-K Gold,” McGee said. “And then after that, focus on Districts and try to win that. The primary goal is to win a state championship. We want a ring.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Wyoming’s Diego Ledesma (1) is introduced before a Feb. 4 win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. (Middle) Menalito McGee (10) gets to the basket. (Below) The Wolves talk things over with coach Thom Vander Klay. (Photos courtesy of the Wyoming boys basketball program.)
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.)