By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Coaches always say at this point in the MHSAA Tournament that every team still playing has to be good, if not dangerous no matter what its W-L record shows.
The toughest part of this week's "Breslin Bound" girls report was picking just five District Finals to highlight from a variety of great finishes last week. But below are a glance at some of the best, followed by Regionals of particular intrigue.
“Breslin Bound” is powered by MI Student Aid and based on results and schedules posted for each school at MHSAA.com. Send corrections or missing scores to [email protected]. Rankings below are by Michigan Power Rating (MPR).
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Macomb Dakota 46, Port Huron 29 – The Cougars (19-4) gave Port Huron one of its closest games of the regular season in a four-point Feb. 18 loss, then handed the Big Reds (21-1) their only defeat in this Division 1 District Final.
2. Manton 26, Lake City 17 – After falling twice by double digits to champion Lake City (20-2) in Highland Conference play, Manton (21-2) got past the rival Trojans – who had made the Division 3 Semifinals a year ago.
3. Freeland 64, Bay City John Glenn 38 – The Falcons (19-4) opened this season 2-3, with a two-point loss to John Glenn (18-5) on Dec. 18, but avenged it in a big way to move on Division 2.
4. Cadillac 35, Big Rapids 31 – The Vikings (22-1) won a Division 2 matchup of league champions, handing Big Rapids (21-2) just its second defeat of the season.
5. Haslett 39, Williamston 37 – These two Division 2 contenders had tied for the Capital Area Activities Conference Red title and split during the regular season, but Haslett (16-7) took the final upper hand after losing to Williamston (18-5) by a point in their previous most recent meeting.
Regionals at a Glance
These could be among our most competitive brackets. Host sites are in bold:
Holland West Ottawa
East Grand Rapids (21-2) vs. Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (21-2), Rockford (16-6) vs. Hudsonville (21-1)
West Michigan’s elite have poured into this Regional. Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold champion EGR advanced with a 56-53 District Final win over East Kentwood, which shared the O-K Red championship. The other Red co-champ Hudsonville also earned a big win during District week, handing Byron Center just its second loss on the way to advancing. The Eagles are plenty familiar with, and will be careful against Rockford after beating them twice during the regular season – but by just a point in overtime and then four in the rematch. Reeths-Puffer and East Grand Rapids will meet for the first time this season, and the Rockets are on a two-month surge. They’ve won 13 straight – including avenging both of their defeats – while clinching the O-K Black championship.
Southfield Arts & Technology
Bloomfield Hills Marian (18-5) vs. Grosse Pointe North (16-6), Farmington Hills Mercy (20-3) vs. Detroit Renaissance (21-2)
This Regional has some serious Detroit-area power and should draw statewide interest as well as Renaissance (No. 2), Marian (No. 8) and Mercy (No. 10) all were among the final top 10 in Division 1 regular-season MPR. Tonight’s second semifinal between Mercy and Renaissance is a rematch of the Operation Friendship game won by Renaissance 44-32 on Feb. 27. If Mercy wins the rematch, it may again see Marian, and won two of three against the Mustangs during the regular season as they shared the Detroit Catholic League Central championship and Mercy won the league tournament. But Marian will hardly stroll into Thursday’s final – Grosse Pointe North has won 10 of its last 12 with a pair of victories over Macomb Area Conference Red champion and No. 13 Grosse Pointe South after splitting with South during league play.
Walled Lake Western
West Bloomfield (17-6) vs. Hartland (22-1), Clarkston (19-4) vs. Walled Lake Western (19-4)
Hartland entered the postseason No. 6 in Division 1 and has been an anticipated championship contender all season. But the Eagles – winners of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association West and overall titles – may have to defeat two more league champions to reach the season’s final week. West Bloomfield shared the Oakland Activities Association Red title and entered the postseason No. 18 in Division 1, while Walled Lake Western clinched the Lakes Valley Conference title. Clarkston is in this mix as well and with good reason. The Wolves were third in the OAA Red, just a game out of joining the title share with West Bloomfield and Southfield Arts & Technology, and previously defeated tonight’s opponent Western by 10 in their season opener.
Escanaba (13-7) vs. Sault Ste. Marie (20-1), Cadillac (22-1) vs. Standish-Sterling (19-3)
This Regional includes four teams that finished among the top 20 in Division 2 MPR at the end of the regular season, led by No. 6 Sault Ste. Marie with its lone loss Dec. 20 to St. Ignace. That defeat was avenged Feb. 6, and the Blue Devils also own a 63-56 win over Escanaba from way back on Dec. 13 (their scheduled rematch Feb. 28 was canceled). The No. 20 Eskymos earned a one-point overtime win over Houghton and a four-point victory over Gladstone last week to claim their District title, and have won six of their last eight as the head into Regional play for the first time in at least a decade. On the other side of the bracket, No. 16 Standish-Sterling finished second in the Tri-Valley Conference East but took out a league champion – Clare from the Jack Pine Conference – to win last week’s District. Now comes Big North Conference champion and No. 14 Cadillac in a rematch of last season’s Regional Semifinal – a 61-39 Vikings win on the way to eventually reaching the Quarterfinals.
Marine City (18-4) vs. Lake Fenton (17-6), Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (11-10) vs. Imlay City (20-3)
Whichever team emerges from this bracket will have accomplished a historic program achievement. Cranbrook and Imlay City are playing this week for their first Regional title, while Marine City is hoping for its first since 1976 and Lake Fenton its first since 1993. Marine City in the MAC Gold and Imlay City in the Blue Water Area Conference are league champions, and Lake Fenton finished second to Goodrich in the Flint Metro League Stars but then defeated the Martians in last week’s District Final. Cranbrook has been on a nice streak as well after a rough start; the Cranes have won seven of their last 10. Imlay City has won 16 of its last 17, and avenged the lone loss during that run two games later in a District Semifinal. Marine City opened 13-1 and then bounced back last week from a bumpy end to the regular season.
Freeland (19-4) vs. Chesaning (19-4), Portland (20-3) vs. Frankenmuth (18-5)
Freeland (No. 7), Frankenmuth (No. 10) and Portland (No. 12) have been climbed among the Division 2 elite, and Chesaning belongs in the conversation with its second-place showing in the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference to Division 3 contender Byron. Chesaning takes on a Falcons team with only two losses against Division 2 opponents and 17 wins over their last 18 games – Freeland also clinched the TVC East title ahead of Standish-Sterling (above) and Frankenmuth. The Eagles did earn a win over Chesaning during the regular season but were swept by Freeland – although they’ll be eager for another rematch after falling to the Falcons by only two and four points in their two meetings, respectively. The Raiders, however, may not allow that to happen as they look to add to their CAAC White and District titles, the former against a league group including four teams that finished with at least 13 wins.
Kent City (22-1) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (21-2), Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (17-6) vs. Ithaca (21-1)
Reigning Division 3 champion P-W ended this regular season No. 1 in Division 3 MPR and has won 17 straight, but will face a Kent City team tonight that surely hasn’t forgotten about last year’s 35-33 Regional Semifinal loss to the Pirates. Both teams are led by mostly the same groups of standouts as a year ago, P-W by a pair of 1,000-point career scorers and Kent City with a host of long-distance shooters who have continued to post record-book 3-point performances. But whichever team wins tonight can’t think all is won. WMC finished second in the Lakes 8 Athletic Conference to Division 2 Ludington and has won 15 of its last 17 games. And Ithaca was runner-up in the TVC West to Hemlock (see above) with their only losses of the season a pair against the Huskies.
Sault Ste. Marie
Calumet (19-3) vs. Ishpeming Westwood (21-2), Charlevoix (18-5) vs. Oscoda (20-3)
Calumet (No. 9), Westwood (No. 14) and Charlevoix (No. 18) all finished among the top 20 in Division 3 MPR, and Oscoda’ only regular-season losses were to Division 2 teams before going on a 14-game winning streak. The Owls open tonight against one of the most intriguing opponents of the entire playoffs. Charlevoix won the Lake Michigan Conference and is riding a streak of 15 victories in 16 games despite playing the regular season without University of Michigan recruit Elise Stuck – who was thought to be lost for the winter with an injury but came back for the playoffs. On the other side of the bracket, Calumet is a rough two weeks from a perfect record – the Copper Kings lost three in a row from Jan. 2-16, including 59-45 to Westwood, but otherwise are undefeated. They won the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference West, and Westwood won the East and is playing for its second-straight Regional title after defeating Charlevoix 47-29 in last year’s championship game for this round.
Flint Hamady (20-2) vs. Bad Axe (11-11), Sandusky (19-4) vs. Hemlock (20-2)
Hamady is playing for its fifth Regional title in six seasons and second straight after winning the Genesee Area Conference title and losing only to Division 1 Davison and Division 2 Flint Kearsley during the regular season. The Hawks – last season’s Division 3 runners-up – first face Bad Axe, one of the best stories of last week statewide after entering the postseason two wins under .500 and winning its first District title reportedly since 1980. The other side of the bracket features a pair of teams also a little more familiar with this stage in the tournament. Hemlock, the TVC West champion, is seeking its second Regional title in three seasons. Sandusky finished second in the Greater Thumb Conference East behind only one-loss Ubly and is back playing in a Regional for the fifth time over the last six seasons after missing out a year ago.
Baraga (20-3) vs. Munising (8-13), L’Anse (19-4) vs. Carney-Nadeau (20-4)
Baraga won its first Regional title last season since 1992 and is aiming to repeat after winning the championship in the Copper Mountain Conference’s Copper Country division – although the Vikings did split nonleague with L’Anse, winning the first meeting by 16 but falling in the second by seven. They also have to be careful with Munising, which upset 15-win Rock Mid Peninsula last week on the way to claiming its District title. Carney-Nadeau similarly is surging, but with a different back story. The Wolves finished second in the Skyline Central Conference small-school division to Felch North Dickinson, but then beat North Dickinson by 11 in the District Final a week after losing to the Nordics by 12. And that brings us back to L’Anse, which has a similar story to C-N. The Purple Hornets came in second in the CMC’s Porcupine Mountain division, but downed league champ Ewen-Trout Creek 39-34 in their District Final.
Martin (21-1) vs. Colon (12-10), Fruitport Calvary Christian (18-3) vs. St. Joseph Michigan Lutheran (21-1)
On one side of this bracket are two teams that have been hoping to take the next step. On the other side, the contenders have done so recently and look capable of going farther if they can emerge from this strong field. Martin is playing for its first Regional title since 1995, and Colon its first since 1994. The No. 12 Clippers’ only loss was to Division 3 Gobles as it played mostly larger schools this season and won the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore ahead of the runner-up Tigers. Colon finished second in the Southern Central Athletic Association West and has won eight of its last nine games after a rough start. Calvary Christian finally broke through for its first Regional title last winter and prepped for another tournament run with a number of nonleague games against bigger opponents – two of its losses came to Division 3 teams, and the Eagles have won 13 of their last 14 games. Michigan Lutheran’s most recent Regional title was in 2017, and they are in the mix again after winning the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference White title and avenging that lone loss to league runner-up New Buffalo with a 54-27 win in the District Final.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (21-2) vs. Ubly (22-1, Mio (10-13) vs. Saginaw Nouvel (18-5)
This is familiar territory for the host Irish, who will be playing for their sixth Regional title in eight seasons although they fell short of this round a year ago. Sacred Heart stormed back to open this season with 16 straight wins and clinch the Mid-State Activities Conference title – and with their only losses to Division 3 opponents. No. 8 Ubly, meanwhile, lost only to Division 2 Caro in December and has won 18 straight – with its best of the bunch a 42-31 victory versus Kingston in the District Final that ended the Cardinals’ season at 20-2. Mio might be considered a surprise but has won six of its last eight games. Nouvel also emerged from a TVC West including Hemlock and Ithaca, with three of its five losses to those teams. But the Panthers handed Hemlock its only league defeat.
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PHOTO: Lake Fenton finished second to Goodrich in league play this winter, but defeated the Martians in last week’s Division 2 District Final. (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.)