Basketball season in Michigan is played over four months, and this season – for the first time – over 22 games, or two more than in seasons past.
In many cases, those additional games will be used by teams to test themselves a few more times against less-familiar opponents, especially early, and we’ve seen a number of intriguing nonleague matchups already this season – some of last week’s best are covered below, and some of this week’s are mentioned as well.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Renaissance 41, Wayne Memorial 39 These have been two of the state’s best regardless of division the last few seasons, and this win by the Phoenix (2-0) at the Best of Michigan Holiday Classic avenged a 61-44 loss from a year ago.
2. Portland St. Patrick 48, Fowler 40 The Shamrocks (3-1) ran their regular-season winning streak over the reigning Division 4 champion Eagles (2-2) to three to take a quick upper hand in the Central Michigan Athletic Conference.
3. Belleville 69, Detroit Country Day 61 Belleville (2-0) is looking to build on last season’s 13-8 finish, and defeating Country Day (2-2) – a Division 2 semifinalist the last two seasons – also at the Best of Michigan Holiday Classic, is a nice move in that direction.
4. Evart 42, Lake City 40 After losing to Lake City (3-1) by four and one point in last season’s meetings, and Lake City going on to the Division 3 Quarterfinals, this is a big booster for the Wildcats (3-1) as Highland Conference play begins.
5. Imlay City 51, Sandusky 48 The Spartans (5-0) opened the week with a Monday win over Bloomfield Hills Marian and closed it by edging Sandusky (3-2) to win Capac’s Harry Moore Classic.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
East Grand Rapids (4-1) After a series of District and/or 20-game winning seasons, East Grand Rapids cooled to 12-10 last winter. But the Pioneers are tracking among the elite again, with Friday’s 52-41 win over Hudsonville avenging an early loss from a year ago. Their only defeat was 49-41 to again-powerful Grand Rapids West Catholic, and EGR should get another strong test this weekend against Redford Westfield Prep at Aquinas College.
East Kentwood (3-0) The Falcons also came down from a series of superior seasons to finish 12-10 in 2021-22, but they’re surging again as well. They opened with a 43-40 win over Byron Center, avenging last year’s season-opening and District Final defeats, and added double-digit wins last week over Grand Ledge and Muskegon Reeths-Puffer.
Chelsea (4-0) The Bulldogs’ fast start has been one of the most impressive in the state, with double-digit victories over Parma Western, Marshall and Clarkston and a 58-52 win over Freeland. All four won at least 16 games last season, and Marshall defeated Chelsea in an early matchup. The Bulldogs did go on to finish 20-4, and next up this week is Portland – the team that eliminated Chelsea in last year’s Regional Final.
Escanaba (4-0) The Eskymos’ start doesn’t at all resemble the 0-3 beginning to last season, and hasn’t since opening night when Escanaba avenged a pair of 2021-22 losses to Marquette with a 65-50 win. Escanaba since has also avenged two more losses from last season’s 10-10 run with a 66-50 win over Negaunee, and defeated Gaylord St. Mary and McBain to win the latter’s Season Kickoff Tournament.
Cass City (3-0) The Red Hawks improved from 6-9 two seasons ago to 16-5 last winter, and a big win over Sandusky last week gives reason to believe they’re ready to take another step. Cass City lost twice to Sandusky last season, including in a Regional Semifinal, but defeated Sandusky 51-49 in overtime last Tuesday. Cass City’s opening 61-42 win over Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary remains MLS’s only loss as well.
Oscoda (3-1) The Owls have strung together five seasons of solid-to-outstanding finishes, and early on this looks like a possible number six. Oscoda opened with a 57-53 loss to Alpena, but then defeated Division 1 Bay City Central and Midland before handing Cedarville its second defeat of the season. The Owls had lost to both Bay City Central and Cedarville in going 15-7 last winter.
Ewen-Trout Creek (3-0) The Panthers were a solid 14-8 a season ago and have been among the most notable in Division 4 over the last half-decade. This season’s early run should be creating plenty of anticipation as well, as Ewen-Trout Creek have avenged last-year losses to Dollar Bay and Ironwood with wins of 20 and 16 points, respectively. The Panthers finish this week at Ontonagon, which defeated them twice last winter.
Brethren (4-0) Starting with 2018-19, the Bobcats won three, four, five and then 11 games, respectively, heading into this winter. They’re on their way to continuing that improvement with a fast start that’s included all double-digit victories – including 60-21 over Mesick, which split its meetings with Brethren last season on the way to sharing the West Michigan D League title.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Monday – Flint Carman-Ainsworth (3-0) at Dearborn Divine Child (4-0) – These two combined for 37 wins last season and have six double-digit victories between them this winter.
Tuesday – Portland (3-1) at Chelsea (4-0) – As noted above, this is a Regional Final rematch after Portland won that playoff meeting 47-22 and also a regular-season matchup 53-36.
Wednesday – Grosse Pointe North (4-0) at Lake Fenton (3-0) – Both made Regional Finals a season ago and have impressive early wins, GPN over Country Day and Lake Fenton over Frankenmuth.
Friday – Williamston (3-1) at Haslett (4-0) – These two shared the Capital Area Activities Conference Red title last year and could be among the state-ranked in Division 2 as well this winter.
Saturday – West Bloomfield (1-1) vs. Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (1-1) at Detroit Renaissance – The reigning Division 1 and 3 champions, respectively, will meet at the Phoenix Shootout.
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PHOTO Goodrich’s Kayla Hairston gets up a shot during a season-opening win over Davison. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)
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.)