COMSTOCK — It took almost a quarter century, but the Comstock girls finally put their mark on the basketball banner hanging in their gym.
They have to share the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Red title with Buchanan, but that is OK with them.
“It’s been (24 years) since Comstock girls won conference,” junior Ahkyla Blakely said. “I’m very excited. We’ll get our year up on the banner.”
With a junior and three sophomores among the starting five, one might have thought the team was in a rebuilding season.
But when it comes to experience, there is nothing young about this team.
The Colts have a 17-2 overall record, 9-1 in the conference.
The team may be young, but the girls grew up playing together in the youth program called “The Stampede” that started when the current sophomores were in fourth grade and with coaches that included Justin Ansel, the girls varsity coach for the last five years.
“Our junior class started when they were in fifth grade, so they grew up together with their class,” Ansel said. “Last year, the combination of the two classes, we had a whole year of playing together.”
This year, that experience is paying rewards.
Sophomore Daisy Ansel leads the Colts, averaging 15.2 points per game, followed by junior Blakely at 12.4 and sophomore Caylin Lopez at nine.
Ansel and Lopez also started last year as freshmen.
Abby House, who was pulled up from the junior varsity team midway through last season, is the other sophomore starter along with Blakely and senior Miranda Cannon.
Friends & Family
Having her dad as a coach can be both good and bad, Daisy Ansel said.
“It’s challenging at times, but it makes me better because he pushes me harder as an individual player,” she said.
“At home we talk about basketball all the time. It’s probably brought us together more as a family.”
Her brother, Seth, is a junior on the boys varsity basketball team.
Justin Ansel said the day his daughter does not feel comfortable with him as her coach is the day he will step down – as tough as that would be.
“We do have a relationship that at the end of every season I tell her if you don’t want me to coach any more, I’ll gladly step away and be a parent in the stands and support you in that respect,” he said.
“Each year, she’s always wanted me to be her coach. That feels good.”
He added that it is not just her he would miss coaching.
“You develop a relationship since fourth grade with these girls, and it’s not just your daughter,” he said. “I feel like I have a bunch of daughters out there.”
Senior Arreona Blakely said the turning point in the season was defeating Buchanan, 54-33, on Feb. 3.
The Colts lost to the Bucks 37-33 the month before.
“(Our win) was probably our best game, communication and defense-wise,” Blakely said.
She has no problem with her younger sister starting while she waits for the nod.
“I’m used to it,” the senior said. “It’s more I know my position, which is to be a leader and a communicator versus being the one out there scoring points. She’s more the athletic one versus me.
“I’m not really that athletic like her, but I’m good to support her. When she’s going through a rough time, I’m the only one who really knows how to pick her back up, spirit-wise, and get her going.”
Ahkyla Blakely said two things have helped the team improve from its 13 wins last year.
“It’s conditioning and practice,” she said. “Our coach makes us run these Sweet 16s every practice, and we’ve got to try to beat a time. He pushes us.
“We’ve been waiting for (last year’s) freshmen to come up, and now they’re sophomores and we’ve all been together for a long time. It feels like family.”
Daisy Ansel said the girls have a connection.
“We know who our shooters are, who we’re trying to get open,” she said. “We know all the plays. We have over 10 plays we can run against any team, and we all know them.
“When we’re out there together, we all just click like in middle school, and outside of basketball we get along.”
Ansel is a captain along with the Blakely sisters.
“Normally, sophomores aren’t captains, but going through travel ball has taught me so much, like the communication part of basketball,” Ansel said.
“I used to think you had to work the hardest and had to win everything, but now you’ve got to pump up everybody on your team to have the strongest practice. I work on giving more energy and communication in practice because it plays a bigger part than you think on the basketball court.”
House is a five-sport athlete, playing volleyball and golf in the fall, basketball and bowling in the winter and softball in the spring.
“It’s pretty tough between homework and all the practices and games, but I try to make it work,” she said. “Coaches work with me a lot.”
She said it is an advantage to have been coached by Justin Ansel on the Stampede team.
“He’s been our coach since we were little, so we know what he wants us to do,” she said. “He challenges us more because he knows what we can do.”
This season, “We’re generating a lot more offense. We’re all playing together as one team instead of as individuals, and our defense has tremendously improved since last year.”
Sophomore Madelyn Caswell is the tallest on the team at 5-foot-9, but “with my lankiness, my coach says I’m about 5-11,” she said, laughing.
Playing her first year on varsity, “The competitiveness is a lot more intense,” she said. “We have big goals and working to get there is a lot more competitive, and we’re a lot more driven than we were on jayvee.”
More to achieve
Comstock will host an MHSAA Class B District next week where it could face perennial power and reigning Class B champion Marshall in the second game.
“We play Parchment in the first round and if we win that, Marshall in the finals,” Justin Ansel said. “Marshall is very tough. We’re going to have to be fundamentally strong on both ends of the floor.
“Last year we got to Marshall in the first game. Four out of my five years (coaching Comstock), Marshall has ended my season.”
But the team entered this winter with high aspirations, and already has made good on making history.
“It’s something we talked about, but it wasn’t something we imagined doing,” Caswell said. “Throughout the season we realized we could make (winning conference) more of a reality.”
Marissa Vandyk is the other senior on the team. Juniors are Kierra Lovelace and Kaylee Gilley.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Comstock sophomore Caylin Lopez guards a Parchment ball handler this season. (Middle top) Comstock coach Justin Ansel and sophomore Daisy Ansel. (Middle below) Comstock junior Ahkyla Blakely and senior Arreona Blakely. (Below) Sophomore Madelyn Caswell (40) works to defend a shot. (Action photos courtesy of the Comstock girls basketball program; head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.)