By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Believe it or not, girls basketball practice began more than three months ago.
Fifteen weeks later, we have only one more of the regular season, making this our last chance to tout the races for league titles that will finish playing out over the next six days.
Read on for some of the teams that either accomplished big things over the last week or still can – and we’ll look at more Monday as we jump into the start of District tournaments all over Michigan.
East Kentwood (10-8) – The Ottawa-Kent Conference Red race has been close among the top four teams, and East Kentwood beat fourth-place Rockford on Friday to set up tonight’s likely championship game against Hudsonville (see below). The Falcons were 7-14 and fifth in the league a year ago.
Hudsonville (10-8) – The Eagles’ turnaround has been even more dramatic than that of East Kentwood (above). Hudsonville was 2-19 and last in the O-K Red a year ago, but beat fourth-place Rockford and third-place Holland West Ottawa last week to set up tonight’s conference decider.
Marquette (18-0) – The Redettes locked up their third consecutive Great Northern Upper Peninsula Conference title, but can take the achievement to another level with two more victories this week to finish the regular season undefeated for the first time during this three-season run. Marquette beat West Peninsula Athletic Conference champion Houghton 49-40 on Friday.
Oxford (14-4) – The Wildcats have ridden nine straight wins to the Oakland Activities Association White title, clinching it last week with a 51-32 victory over second-place Troy. Oxford already had eclipsed last season’s 13 wins.
Center Line (16-2) – The Panthers also have won nine straight and must hold on this week against third-place Marine City and seventh-place Mount Clemens to share the Macomb Area Conference Gold title with Marysville. Center Line finished second, a game back, in the MAC Silver last season.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (16-2) – The Cougars avenged in a big way their only O-K Gold loss – 77-76 to Wayland on Jan. 23 – by beating Wayland 64-42 on Friday to move into a first-place tie with the Wildcats with two league games to play. GRCC has finished league runner-up the last two seasons.
Haslett (14-4) – The Vikings are 9-0 with standout Makenna Ott and went 5-4 without her before she returned from injury for Friday’s 57-53 win over Lansing Waverly (14-5). Her return is just in time to help Haslett hold on to a share of the Capital Area Activities Conference Red title and possibly get revenge in the District against Williamston, the first to beat the Vikings after Ott was hurt.
Kentwood Grand River Prep (14-1) – The Titans haven’t lost since the first Saturday of this season, to Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (14-3), and can clinch a share of the River Valley Conference title tonight against Wyoming Tri-unity Christian. Junior Mariah McCully sets the pace, scoring 24.4 points per game.
Adrian Madison (15-4) – The Trojans locked up the Tri-County Conference title with a win Friday over Petersburg-Summerfield after also avenging their only league loss, Jan. 13 to Britton Deerfield, in their rematch Feb. 10. Two of Madison’s other three losses were to teams that also have won league championships this winter.
Brown City (13-5) – The Green Devils bounced back from three straight losses at the start of February to win four straight and secure a top-three finish in the Greater Thumb Conference East. They get to see how far they’ve come Thursday against league leader Sandusky – which beat Brown City 46-38 on Feb. 3.
Manchester (15-2) – The Flying Dutch have clinched the Cascade Conference championship, besting a field with four more teams that have won at least 11 games overall. It was a nice step up after tying for second last season; the only losses this winter came early to second-place Napoleon and at the end of January to still-undefeated Pittsford.
Unionville-Sebewaing (14-4) – The Patriots’ lone league loss came to Reese – but USA regained the upper hand in the Greater Thumb Conference West by defeating the Rockets 57-44 in their rematch Thursday. USA can clinch a shared title tonight against Vassar, which the Patriots beat by four Jan. 20.
Athens (11-6) – Few Class D teams play in a more competitive mostly-Class C league than the Big 8 Conference, and all six of Athens’ losses were to Class C teams with at least 10 wins. The Indians have won four straight and can get further geared up for a tournament run if they tonight can avenge an earlier loss to Reading.
Battle Creek St. Philip (14-5) – Despite falling to second-place Climax-Scotts on Friday, the Tigers can clinch the Southern Central Athletic Association West title outright by defeating Colon on Thursday. St. Philip did rattle off eight straight wins during a perfect January.
Mendon (10-8) – The Hornets will have to settle for a middle finish in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference East, but are 7-2 after a tough start and have avenged losses to second-place White Pigeon and league champion Bronson. Mendon made the Quarterfinals last season and could be gathering steam again.
Waldron (11-5) – The Spartans play in the same SCAA East as the only undefeated team in Class D, Pittsford. But Waldron has won more games than all of last season and gone 9-2 since a rough early start and despite playing in an SCAA division where all four teams have 10 or more wins.
PHOTO: Haslett fell to Goodrich 55-43 on Jan. 20 but enter the final week of the regular season at full strength with the return of Makenna Ott from injury. (Click for more from 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.)