By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – St. Ignace is used to driving three hours to East Lansing for the last weekend of girls basketball season. This marked the sixth straight they’ve made the trip.
But only one other team has come from so far back to win an MHSAA championship.
With good reason, St. Ignace looked like a 2014-15 runner-up in the making trailing undefeated Pittsford by 20 two minutes into the third quarter of Saturday’s Class D Final. But the Saints never saw it that way – and launched a comeback that tied the largest in MHSAA girls basketball championship game history.
The Saints needed overtime to finish the run, but edged Pittsford 64-60 to claim their third title in five seasons.
“A lot of heart. You have to come out there and give it your all, after halftime, and we tried to,” said St. Ignace junior Abbey Ostman, whose 31 points tied for 11th most in a girls MHSAA Final. “I felt like my teammates were trying really hard, and I felt I needed to step up to help them. I knew they were here to give it their all.”
And that’s what it took for the Saints to claim their fifth championship in historic fashion.
The comeback tied Detroit Cass Tech’s in the 1987 Class A Final, when it came back from 20 down in the third quarter to defeat Saginaw 52-51 at Grand Valley State University.
The Saints (22-5) trailed Pittsford 41-21 just two minutes into the third quarter after a first half that saw St. Ignace uncharacteristically miss all nine of its 3-point attempts and shoot only 32 percent from the floor. The Wildcats, meanwhile, made half of their shots and 5 of 11 from behind the arc.
But a half, and more, remained to play.
“I told (my players) they were going to make a run. We had to weather it, and we didn’t,” Pittsford coach Chris Hodos said. “I didn’t know if it would be Ostman or (Margo) Brown who would get hot. I just didn’t know. They have two senior players who have been here a lot of times, and they know how to win games.”
Brown was the hero of Thursday’s Semifinal, when the Saints came back from 13 down to beat top-ranked Frankfort on the wave of her seven straight 3-pointers during the second and third quarters.
She followed Ostman on Saturday with 19 points, and only one 3-pointer this time. But that shot pulled the Saints within 48-43 just 17 seconds into the fourth quarter – and four minutes later she was fouled on a made lay-up and added the free throw to cut Pittsford’s lead to 50-49.
“Margo’s got the biggest heart out of any player I’ve ever coached,” said St. Ignace coach Dorene Ingalls, who has led the Saints for 16 seasons. “It’s heart like that as a senior, to come out and have two comeback wins, down 20, and never give up.
“When she makes that (3), the kids start to believe, but the other team starts believing, ‘Uh oh. We’re in trouble,’ if they watched the other game’s second half.”
Ostman made the score even for the first time since the game’s second minute with a free throw that tied it 54-54 with 35 seconds left in regulation. Regulation ended that way after a Brown drive during the final seconds was stopped short.
Ostman scored the first two baskets of overtime, and Pittsford answered. But junior forward Natalee Lee then gave the Saints a 60-58 lead on two free throws – and after two Pittsford turnovers Brown added two free throws as well to make it a four-point game again with 44 seconds to play.
The Wildcats got no closer.
Ostman also grabbed 10 rebounds as the Saints earned the advantage overall in that category, 42-33.
Junior forward Laura Smith led four Pittsford scorers in double figures with 14 points; sophomore Jaycie Burger added 13, senior Morgan Dominique had 12 and sophomore Maddie Clark had 12 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
Ostman started in St. Ignace’s 2013 Class D Final win as a freshman, and Smith and guard Autumn Orm came off the bench as sophomores in that game. Senior center Sarah Smith came off the bench to play big minutes as the team finished Class C runner-up a year ago.
All of that experience surely paid off Saturday, and Saturday’s could pay off quickly for a Pittsford team graduating only two players after completing the longest tournament run in program history.
“We tried not to let the size of it and the pressure of the game get to us,” Burger said. “We learned what it’s like to play in front of all of these people, how not to get caught up in the surroundings, how not to get rattled when they make their runs. We learned how to stay focused and keep ourselves under control.”
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace’s Abbey Ostman breaks to the basket with Pittsford’s Maddie Clark (10) defending. (Middle) Pittsford’s Morgan Dominique looks for an opening in the Saints’ defense, which includes Margo Brown (24).
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.)