By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Three reigning MHSAA girls basketball champions remain alive as we head into the final week of this season. They and two reigning runners-up are only one win away from returning to Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But 27 more teams also sense how close they are to booking trips to East Lansing. That added ounce of motivation could go a long way in tonight's Quarterfinals across the state.
See below for a quick glance at all 16 games being played this evening. And click here for brackets including tip-off times and sites for every game.
Westland John Glenn (23-1) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (22-0): King senior Antania Hayes might’ve fallen a few votes short in the Miss Basketball balloting this week, but her team is the favorite to leave Breslin on Saturday with the champion trophy. John Glenn senior guard Raven Bankston (18 ppg) hopes to stand in the way tonight.
Grand Ledge (21-4) vs. Grand Haven (25-0): The reigning Class A champion Buccaneers and 6-foot-5 center Abby Cole achieved something they didn't last winter by going undefeated this regular season. The Comets have taken big leaps of late – improving from eight, to 11, to 15 and now 21 wins over the last four seasons and already knocked out a Miss Basketball candidate in defeating Mattawan.
Grosse Pointe South (23-1) vs. Birmingham Marian (21-3): Grosse Pointe South is the reigning Class A runner-up and has rattled off 23 straight victories since losing on opening night to Chicago Whitney Young. Marian, with just a three-point loss a few weeks ago, is one of only a few to play King close this season, and is succeeding with no player averaging more than 9.8 points per game.
Saginaw Heritage (16-9) vs. Dexter (22-3): A lineup featuring three sophomore starters has led Heritage to its best season since 2005. Dexter won its first Regional title since earning back-to-back in 1997-98, and similar to Marian has four scorers averaging more than seven points per game but none averaging eight.
Clare (23-1) vs. Midland Bullock Creek (22-3): Clare has won a lot and won big; its only game within 10 points this season was a one-point loss to Saginaw Nouvel on Dec. 4. Two sophomores and a senior averaging double figures scoring have led Bullock Creek to its first District title since 2008 and now farther.
Detroit Country Day (18-3) vs. Flint Powers Catholic (19-6): Country Day won its eighth-straight Regional title and is led by guard Asia Doss scoring a team-high 13.3 points per game. Powers is back to being a power after going only 8-13 a year ago. Senior forward Kim Berry leads the way with 13.9 ppg.
Goodrich (22-3) vs. Livonia Ladywood (17-7): Reigning Class B champion Goodrich had a few hiccups after going undefeated in 2011-12, but could run away with the title again led by Miss Basketball runner-up Taylor Gleason (21.6 ppg). Ladywood will try to stop that run tonight while led by another high-scoring senior guard, Andrea Anastos (19.8 ppg).
Marshall (21-4) vs. Grand Rapids South Christian (23-1): Marshall is back in the Quarterfinals after falling last season to Dearborn Divine Child, and is back thanks in part to two sophomore starters. South Christian has its best record since 2006 and is in the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2004.
Niles Brandywine (24-0) vs. Manchester (24-1): Brandywine has made the Quarterfinals all four seasons under coach Josh Hood and made the Semifinals in 2010. Manchester hopes to get there keyed by a pair of seniors – 6-foot-1 forward McKenna Erkfrtiz and 5-5 guard Taylor Manders – both averaging more than 14 points per game.
Riverview Gabriel Richard (15-7) vs. Flint Hamady (22-3): Senior Ashley Henderson is averaging 16 points per game and had 30 in Gabriel Richard’s Regional title win over Madison Heights Bishop Foley. Last season was the only one over the last four that Hamady didn't make at least a Quarterfinal, and it’s looking to get back to a championship game for the first time since winning Class C back-to-back in 2009-10.
Delton Kellogg (21-4) vs. Saginaw Nouvel (23-2): Kellogg has increased its win total all three seasons under coach Mike Mohn, and has followed a third-place finish in the strong Kalamazoo Valley Association to bigger things. But Nouvel will be the toughest opponent this season; the Panthers have their best record since back-to-back championship runs in 2006 and 2007-08.
Shelby (21-3) vs. Houghton (22-2): Shelby has won at least 18 games all three seasons under coach Sarah Wolting, and this season claimed its first postseason titles under her leadership. Junior forward Elisa Jurmu is averaging 19.9 points per game as Houghton makes its first Quarterfinal appearance since 2009.
St. Ignace (24-0) vs. Crystal Falls Forest Park (23-1): The Saints made the Class C Semifinals in 2012 and didn't have their first close game this winter until a 74-68 win over previously-undefeated Posen. Crystal Falls Forest Park is trying to return to the Class D Semifinals and is again led by one of the state’s top juniors – 6-0 Lexi Gussert, who is averaging 32.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.
Climax-Scotts (19-5) vs. Gaylord St. Mary (23-2): Five senior starters have Climax-Scotts in the Quarterfinals for the first time in coach Dana Perrin’s three seasons as coach. Junior guard Kari Borowiak is averaging more than 17 points per game for a St. Mary team that hasn't lost since Dec. 18.
Athens (21-3) vs. Plymouth Christian (18-6): This is Athens’ third-straight Quarterfinal berth and it will be looking to return to Breslin after advancing to the championship game in 2012. Plymouth Christian gave reigning champion Waterford Our Lady a scare early this season and played one of the toughest schedules of any Class D Quarterfinalist.
Waterford Our Lady (19-4) vs. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (16-7): Guards Lexie Robak and Ava Doetsch can finish this week as four-time MHSAA champions and have started for Our Lady all four of their high school seasons. Sacred Heart is back in the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2010 and hopes to avenge a 50-38 loss to Our Lady on Dec. 15.
PHOTO: Goodrich guard Taylor Gleason (22) will try to lead her team to a second-straight Class B championship this week. (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.)