Whitens Leads Jets' Pursuit of Record Run

December 13, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

POWERS – Jason Whitens stands rather nonchalantly, but there is no doubt he is focused on his assignment.

It is not as easy to see his steely resolve in football because of the helmet and distance from which a fan watches Whitens prepare for the next play. It is much easier to see his features in basketball, where fans are almost as close to him as the defender.

In either sport, he scans the defense, then decides the best mode of attack. In both sports, he is efficient and effective, to such a degree that he has helped North Central win back-to-back MHSAA championships in 8-player football and Class D basketball.

The Jets brought a 55-game winning streak into the current basketball season, after extending their 8-player football mark to 26 straight wins. Whitens has been an integral part of each notable run.

He ran for an astounding 359 yards in the football finale as North Central throttled Deckerville 58-21. Deckerville had allowed only 50 points over its previous 12 games. Whitens also passed for 100 yards, but this game his running skills were needed as he averaged 20.7 yards per carry while scoring six touchdowns,

Last week Whitens entered basketball season with a school-record 1,410 points in three seasons, with an outside shot at reaching the year-old Upper Peninsula career mark of 2,178 points owned by Gage Kreski of St. Ignace.

Basically, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior is a threat to beat an opponent in a variety of different ways. That skill set has made Whitens an attractive college recruit in both sports, with interest from Division I and Division II schools such as the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, Central Michigan, Lake Superior State and Grand Valley State.

That attention is understandable since he is a two-time 8-player state Player of the Year from The Associated Press in football and was basketball’s Class D state Player of the Year last season as well. He is also Michigan’s representative for the Wendy’s Heisman Award as a scholar/athlete.

While all of those accolades are fantastic, Whitens remains a down-to-earth senior who has one primary goal as he approaches his final months in high school. Like his teammates, he wants to win another Class D basketball title.

And he spreads the credit around. “The surrounding cast has been phenomenal,” Whitens said, referring to teammates, family, friends and coaches.

“That has prepared me and my teammates for what we have done, how all of this has been given to us so we could perform. The best part of it has been all of us being together.”

That togetherness began before this group of players was born. Gerald Whitens and Tim Bilski, dads to senior teammates Jason and Dawson, played on North Central’s 1984 Class D championship basketball team and were part of a 33-game winning streak that ended in the 1985 Semifinals.

“Sports bring people together; you make friends and create bonds,” said Jason Whitens. Noting what helps make it fun, he added, “We don’t talk about the game as much as we talk about the guys.”

Many of these Jets have been playing backyard games together since pre-school days, with only the rewards changing.

“When we were younger, we all dreamt of this and knew we could do it,” Whitens said in a recent interview at school. “That is why it is not a shock to do it. Now we are basking in it, we’re just going to enjoy it and say ‘that was fun.’”

He recalled traveling various distances to 3-on-3 tournaments as youngsters. “That is what separates us from other schools,” he said. “We’ve played together for so long we know where each other is and how each other plays.”

And did we mention their highly competitive spirit?

“You will never meet a more competitive group than us,” said Whitens. “We want to win; that is our number one goal (in ping pong or anything). We always want to one-up each other, but there is no ill will because you beat someone. We always want to beat each other.

“We are always competing; there is no backing down from a challenge.”

North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who officiates basketball with Gerald Whitens, touched on that competitive level about his quarterback.

“The guy competes every time he is on the floor, on the field, on the diamond, every minute he is out there. If you want him to lie down, then take him out of the game,” Bellefeuil said.

“His dad is a pretty good competitor; his mom (Faye) is a competitor as well.”

His mother is a Granquist, and that family has been very athletically accomplished at North Central. Tom Granquist, Jason’s uncle, held the school basketball scoring record that Whitens broke last year. His cousin, Rob Granquist, was an all-star quarterback and cager just ahead of Whitens, and is No. 3 on the school’s basketball point chart.

“As a group, they all have a competitive spirit,” said Bellefeuil.

Jason Whitens, noting how it was important to keep up and surpass his relatives, said “there was always something to strive for, something you tried to do better. I was always motivated. I never just settled on doing something today or tomorrow.

“It is something I had to get intrigued about myself. It was second nature. I was always around it, I wanted to be a part of it. It just inspired me to be the best I could be,” Whitens said.

“Hopefully I can set an example and make (younger relatives) better than me. That would be selfish if I didn’t want that for my family.”

That competitive spirit and deep will to win may have reached a notable mark when Whitens was a freshman.

Playing in the basketball Class D Quarterfinal in Marquette, Whitens missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw set with no time left that sealed an 81-79 loss to Cedarville. That was the last time the Jets have lost on the hardwood.

A basket by Whitens at the buzzer was denied after the officials conferred and decided he had to shoot free throws.

“That was a huge impact as a basketball player and as a human being, as a person,” Whitens said in reflection. “I look at basketball in a whole new perspective now. It is not life or death. When I’m around family and friends, that is real.

“That (situation) helped set the bar. I didn’t want to feel or be put in a position where I would let my team down. I matured a lot from that point. I realized you can’t always play perfect. You are always going to make mistakes. That did inspire me to become better.”

The Jets have won 57 straight games since that loss. Surpassing the mark of 65 straight wins set by Chassell from 1956-58 “is in the back of our mind. It is a process, and we’re taking one game at a time. The most important thing is having fun and being prepared as the ride goes along,” Whitens said. “It is hard to do it yourself. It is great to do it together as one.”

Next up is Carney-Nadeau on Thursday, with Menominee providing a possible substantial challenge Monday.

He is also going through his senior season pondering his future in sports. “Where to go and what to play (football or basketball), that is mixed up right now. What (sport) to commit to and who to commit to. I’m not really close deciding where to go or what sport to play,” he said.

“It is a wild, crazy and confusing ride.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Jason Whitens high fives during last season’s post-basketball championship celebration at Powers North Central High School. (Middle) Whitens looks for an opening during the Class D Final win over Waterford Our Lady. (Below) Whitens runs away from a Deckerville defender during last month’s 8-Player Football Final. (Top photo by Paul Gerard; bottom photo by Dennis Grall.)

Howardsville Christian Striving to Transfer Fall Successes to Basketball Court

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

November 28, 2023

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.

Southwest CorridorIt 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."

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. 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.

The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (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 HassingerScott 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.)