By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The first week of the MHSAA Girls Basketball Tournament is done, and what do we know so far?
There will be a new Class B champion this winter, and a number of emerging contenders could shake things up in all four classes.
See below for our take on four District champs from each class that especially stuck out during last week’s action; click to follow this week’s Regional Tournament. Next week’s Breslin Bound report will preview all 16 Quarterfinals.
Byron Center (18-5) – The Bulldogs have steadily climbed the last four seasons from sub-.500 in 2011-12, with this District title a nice crowning achievement no matter what happens this week. Byron Center opened with a five-point win over East Kentwood (11-10), then avenged last season’s District Final loss by beating Grand Rapids Christian (17-5) in this Semifinal, 48-44. Byron Center then downed Caledonia (15-7) in the championship game, 39-27.
Marquette (23-0) – The Redettes pushed their sphere of domination further downstate, extending their perfect run against some of the biggest and best from the northern Lower Peninsula. Marquette first beat Big North Conference champion Traverse City West (17-4), which had eliminated Marquette the last two seasons. The Redettes then beat Traverse City Central (9-12) in the Semifinal before finishing the run with a 65-41 win over Big North runner-up Gaylord (18-5).
Muskegon Mona Shores (20-3) – Mona Shores shared the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black title with Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (16-5) because it lost to the Rockets – twice – during the regular season. But the Sailors won with the season on the line, beating Reeths-Puffer 50-46 in the District opener. They then beat Grand Haven in the Semifinal and won the championship against Muskegon, which eliminated Mona Shores last winter.
Salem (19-4) – The Rocks followed up their Kensington Lakes Activities Association overall championship with three wins including two over familiar opponents. Salem opened with a three-point victory over Plymouth (17-4), which had eliminated the Rocks the last two seasons, and then beat Northville (13-8), which finished second to Salem in the KLAA Central. The Rocks moved on with a 42-29 win over Canton (11-11), last season’s Class A runner-up.
Midland Bullock Creek (23-0) – Arguably the favorite for the entire tournament, Bullock Creek had to survive an early scare and another strong opponent to advance. After beating Pinconning (8-11) in the opener, the Lancers just edged Bay City John Glenn (15-4) by a point, 40-39, in the Semifinal. Bullock Creek came back big in the Final with a 65-30 win over Gladwin (16-7).
Haslett (18-5) – The Vikings are looking again like the contenders they were expected to be at the start of this winter. They opened by avenging a regular-season loss against Williamston (19-2), downing the Hornets 53-43, and then beat Perry (15-6) by 28 in the Semifinal. Haslett finished with a 66-30 win over Lansing Catholic (12-11) in the championship game.
Jackson Northwest (19-4) – The Mounties opened by ending the season for the reigning Class B champion, Eaton Rapids (7-14), by beating the Greyhounds 48-44 in overtime after falling to them in last season’s District. Northwest moved on with double-digit wins over Leslie (14-7) and then Olivet (17-5).
Macomb Lutheran North (20-3) – The Mustangs took a step farther than last season after falling in the District championship game a year ago. After eliminating Algonac and Marine City (12-8) by double figures, Lutheran North beat Marysville 42-40 on a put-back with 10 seconds to play in the Final. Marysville shared the Macomb Area Conference Gold title this season, while Lutheran North won the Detroit Catholic League AA.
Laingsburg (23-0) – The undefeated Wolfpack kept their perfection going against two of their toughest regular-season opponents and then the team that eliminated it last season. Laingsburg opened with a 32-26 win over league rival Pewamo-Westphalia (17-4), then beat Bath (12-7) by 10 before avenging last season’s District Final loss to Carson City-Crystal (20-3), beating the Eagles this time 28-17.
Napoleon (16-6) – The Pirates advanced in impressive fashion with an upset and then a little bit of vengeance. After downing Jackson Lumen Christi (8-12) in the opener, Napoleon – runner-up in the Cascades Conference – downed Big 8 Conference champion Concord (18-3) by nine. The Pirates finished the week by defeating Cascades third-place finisher Michigan Center (18-5) which had beaten Napoleon by 10 on Jan. 29.
Reese (17-5) – The Rockets followed up on their shared Greater Thumb Conference West championship with a pair of wins over tough District opponents – Millington (13-9) by 30 points and then New Lothrop (18-5) by 35 in the championship game.
Traverse City St. Francis (21-2) – After a quick first-game exit last season, the Gladiators won a strong District that included a pair of league runners-up. St. Francis, co-champ in the Lake Michigan Conference, opened by beating Ski Valley Conference runner-up Johannesburg-Lewiston (18-3) by 12 points, 52-40, and then defeated Mancelona in the Semifinal and Northwest Conference runner-up Maple City Glen Lake (15-7) in the Final, 47-38.
Bellaire (22-1) – The Eagles claimed their second straight District title with three wins over teams .500 or better. Bellaire opened by doubling up Boyne Falls (11-10), tripled up Ellsworth (10-10) and then downed rival Gaylord St. Mary 46-32. Bellaire beat the Snowbirds (18-5) by a nearly identical score in last season’s District Final as well.
Kingston (19-3) – The Cardinals also won their second straight District title with a pair of double-digit wins over North Central Thumb League rivals. Kingston, the league champion, beat third-place Carsonville-Port Sanilac (12-7) in the Semifinal and then second place Deckerville (16-5) in the championship game, 38-21.
Pickford (16-7) – The Panthers finished second in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Athletic Conference this winter, but avenged a pair of losses to league champion Cedarville (16-6) to advance last week. Pickford opened with a win over EUPAC third-place Brimley (11-9), then downed Kinross Maplewood Baptist (11-5) before edging Cedarville 59-54 in the Final.
Pinckney Livingston Christian (14-5) – LCS claimed its first girls basketball District title with a series of wins including two over similarly-successful teams. After opening with a victory over Ann Arbor Central, Livingston Christian downed Ann Arbor Rudolf Steiner (13-7) and then Adrian Lenawee Christian (14-5) by a bucket, 27-25, in the Final.
PHOTO: Ithaca defeated St. Louis 61-32 in a Class C District Final last week to advance to the MHSAA Regionals for the first time since 2000. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)