By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The MHSAA Girls Basketball Tournament field was reduced from more than 700 to 128 last week with a number of the expected contenders moving on – and few of the unexpected joining the group as well.
See below for four teams from each class that jumped out as we watched Districts finish up and anticipated the start of Regionals tonight. Click for brackets for all 32 and stay with Score Center tonight for scores and updated matchups.
Dearborn (16-7) – The Pioneers saw a two-season league title streak end, but have improved four wins from a year ago and won their District with a 56-51 victory over Allen Park – which finished 18-4. Dearborn has won 12 of its last 14 games.
East Lansing (17-6) – The Trojans emerged from a District that featured the reigning runners-up in Class A (DeWitt) and B (Haslett), downing Haslett 60-42 in an opener, then rival Grand Ledge 52-36 before beating surprise Lansing Waverly in the Final; 57-41. The Trojans have won 10 straight.
Saginaw Heritage (21-1) – The Hawks’ season looked like it might get away when they fell to Midland Dow 48-40 on Feb. 12 after the team lost standout Jaela Richardson to injury for the rest of the season. But Heritage has rebounded to win six straight and beat Dow 42-32 in the District Final.
Southfield Lathrup (20-3) – The win in the District Final, 56-28 over Southfield, was significant in that the two schools will merge into one after this school year and Southfield was a league champion this winter. But on the way, the Chargers also beat two more league champs in Berkley and Detroit Renaissance.
Alma (11-10) – The Panthers entered the postseason with a sub-.500 record, but opened last week with an overtime upset of Belding (which beat Alma in the District last season) and then won the title with a 15-point clincher over Shepherd.
Freeland (20-3) – The Tri-Valley Conference Central champion won its ninth straight game in a nail-biter, beating league rival Saginaw Swan Valley 56-53 in double overtime for the District title. The Falcons had beaten the Vikings by only six and five points during the regular season.
Reed City (11-11) – The record may not jump out, but the Coyotes are leaps and bounds better than 2014-15, when they finished 0-21. Reed City tied for fourth in the Central State Activities Association Gold this winter, but beat co-champion Big Rapids in the opener before edging Clare 48-47 in the Final.
Stevensville Lakeshore (19-2) – The Lancers won their first District title since 2013 with a 57-35 win over Benton Harbor, holding Tigers star Kysre Gondrezick to a still-impressive 24 points after she had scored an MHSAA-record 72 in a double-overtime District-opening win a few days earlier.
Gobles (22-0) – The Tigers nearly saw their perfect run end against a familiar foe, surviving a 65-62 triple-overtime thriller against Hartford in the District Final. Gobles had beaten Hartford, which finished 15-8, 61-18 and 62-28 during the regular season.
Grand Rapids Covenant Christian (16-5) – Last week ended much differently than District week in 2015. Covenant Christian opened with a 45-19 win over Grandville Calvin Christian, a league champion and the team that eliminated the Chargers last year. They then won 54-18 over a Saugatuck team that finished 18-5.
Iron Mountain (14-8) – The Mountaineers repeated as District champs in something of an unexpected scenario. Iron Mountain met up with Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference foe Norway for the third time, and this time won 51-40 after falling 63-37 and 79-45 in the regular-season meetings.
Traverse City St. Francis (22-1) – The Lake Michigan Conference champion hadn’t crossed paths this season with Northwest Conference champion Maple City Glen Lake, but ended the Lakers’ season at 20-3 with a 62-55 win in the District championship game after beating 15-win Elk Rapids in the Semifinal.
Ann Arbor Rudolf Steiner (18-3) – The annual Mid-South Conference power took another step this season, winning its league again and then its District with a 42-35 victory over Adrian Lenawee Christian; the Storm fell in its first District game in 2015.
Athens (16-7) – After closing the regular season with three losses in its final four games, Athens is back in familiar territory thanks to a 51-49 overtime District Final win over Mendon – which finished 17-4. Athens also beat Mendon for a District title last season.
Bellevue (17-6) – The Broncos continue to improve under former Eaton Rapids standout Kayla Whitmyer and are four wins better than a season ago. Bellevue beat Battle Creek St. Philip 36-30 in the District Final a week after falling 40-36 to the Tigers amid a three-losses-in-four-game skid.
Fruitport Calvary Christian (19-3) – One more win will give Calvary Christian 20 for the third straight season, but would mean much more than that; also for the third straight season, the Eagles meet Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in a Regional Semifinal and have lost the last two meetings.
PHOTO: Reed City and Clare players scramble for a loose ball during Reed City’s one-point District Final win last 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.)