By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
By next Monday, many girls basketball teams in Michigan will have at least 20 percent of their regular-season games played.
Given last season’s results and players expected back this winter, many of the most impressive performances were expected. But surprise teams are emerging already as well – and building toward what could be an exciting 2020.
This week’s “Breslin Bound” again highlights teams from both groups. “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].
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Renaissance 49, East Kentwood 47 – After defeating Wayne Memorial by 34 on Friday in a Best of Michigan Classic first-day game, the Phoenix further cemented their status as one of the early teams to watch in Division 1 by edging the Falcons during the event’s second day.
2. East Lansing 49, Williamson 30 – The Trojans have loaded their nonleague schedule with title contenders, and the Hornets are among teams with high Division 2 hopes this winter.
3. Detroit Edison 59, Bolingbrook, Ill. 52 – Edison opened its Best of Michigan Classic two-day run with an impressive win against one of Illinois’ annual powers.
4. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 58, Grass Lake 55 – Carman-Ainsworth also has Division 1 aspirations this season, while Grass Lake looks like a team to beat in Division 3.
5. Howell 50, DeWitt 46 OT – The Highlanders finished just above .500 last season but are well on their way after defeating Midland Dow to start last week and finishing by avenging last season’s 10-point loss to the Panthers.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Ann Arbor Huron (5-0) Few if any teams can boast a more impressive group of early opponents, as Huron’s first five averaged 18 wins last season and included 2018-19 Division 1 semifinalists Muskegon and Wayne Memorial and Division 3 semifinalist Ypsilanti Arbor Prep. The River Rats finished 12-10 last season, but appear ready to make a major jump.
Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (4-0) The Rockets have been one of the best from a strong lakeshore area for a few seasons, and fell to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Muskegon by just four points in last year’s District Final. Last week’s win 52-43 win over annual power Grand Haven might be telling of what’s to come; Reeths-Puffer fell to the Buccaneers by 25 a year ago.
Battle Creek Harper Creek (3-0) Last season’s 15-8 run included a District title, but also two losses to Marshall and another to Battle Creek Central. Harper Creek’s perfect start this winter has included a one-point win over BCC and Friday’s 38-30 victory over Marshall – during which Maddie Alexander scored her 1,000th career point.
Sault Ste. Marie (3-0) The Blue Devils always are solid – last season’s 13 wins were their fewest since winning 12 games in 2012-13. The early returns this winter indicate something more could be in store – after losing last season to Escanaba and splitting with Gaylord, Sault Ste. Marie this time beat the Eskymos by seven and Gaylord’s Blue Devils by 45.
Ann Arbor Greenhills (4-0) The Gryphons are one of few if not the only team that already has surpassed last season’s win total, stacking up four after finishing 2018-19 at 3-14. All four this winter have been by nine points or more, with the 48-38 opening win over Westland Huron Valley Lutheran a 25-point swing from last season’s first-night meeting.
Gwinn (2-0) The Modeltowners opened their season last week, and what a week to remember. First came a 61-58 double-overtime win over Bark River-Harris – avenging last year’s 10-point loss. That was followed by Friday’s 50-40 victory over Iron Mountain – which the Marquette Mining Journal reported was Gwinn’s first win in a conference opener since 2010-11. The Modeltowners finished 12-10 last winter.
Plymouth Christian Academy (3-0) The initial spark may have lit during the 2018 postseason, as the Eagles entered 5-15 and advanced to a Regional Final. They improved to 12-8 overall last winter, and have opened this season in part by avenging last year’s losses to Division 1 Canton and Livonia Franklin.
St. Joseph Michigan Lutheran (4-0) Fast starts are nothing new to the Titans – they won their first 10 games last season and 11 of their first 12 in 2017-18. But that doesn’t make this early surge any less notable – four wins by an average of 31.5 points, a pretty great way to build on last season’s 18-3 finish.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Okemos (2-2) at Hartland (2-0) – The Eagles have opened with wins over two reigning Finals champions in Saginaw Heritage and Adrian Lenawee Christian, while Okemos’ two losses are by a combined five points.
Tuesday – Marquette (4-2) at Negaunee (3-1) – Marquette won 20 games last season and Negaunee won 16, with their first meeting going to the Miners by five and their second to the Redettes by a point.
Wednesday – Grass Lake (4-1) at Michigan Center (3-1) – Grass Lake was first and Michigan Center second in the Cascades Conference last season, but Michigan Center then defeated Grass Lake to win a District title.
Thursday – Midland Dow (2-1) at Midland (4-0) – Dow won last season’s three meetings by an average of 31 points, but Midland has nearly equaled last winter’s win total with an impressive start.
Friday – East Lansing (3-0) at DeWitt (2-1) – One of the state’s top rivalries saw the Division 1 powers split their two meetings and the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title last season.
Second Half’s weekly “Breslin Bound” reports are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid and find more information on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.
PHOTO: A pair of Bridgeport defenders wall off the lane during Friday’s 57-50 overtime loss to Alma. (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.)