By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Over the next three weeks, 700 Michigan high school girls basketball teams will play to become one of four to hoist trophies as 2017-18 MHSAA champions.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll alter the format of our Countdown to Calvin reports – powered by MI Student Aid – still looking at some of the key results from last week but also at three of the most eye-catching brackets in each class for the upcoming week of playoffs.
This week, that means we’ll take closer looks at 12 Districts total in addition to scores from last week that saw some of the state’s best match up one more time before single elimination games begin. (Click here to navigate brackets for all 128 tournaments.)
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Detroit Edison 57, Saginaw Heritage 55 (2OT) – We’ll know March 17 if this titanic matchup featured the eventual champions in Class C and Class A, respectively.
2. Kingsley 70, Maple City Glen Lake 66 – Kingsley completed a perfect regular season and an outright Northwest Conference championship with this win over the second-place Lakers.
3. Wayne Memorial 50, Howell 46 – After coming back to beat Hartland in the semifinal, Wayne won this matchup of Class A contenders to claim the overall Kensington Lakes Activities Association title.
4. Traverse City St. Francis 56, Charlevoix 47 – St. Francis avenged a two-point loss to Charlevoix from Feb. 2 to break a first-place tie and clinch the Lake Michigan Conference title.
5. Ypsilanti Arbor Prep 44, Harper Woods Chandler Park 43 – Another Class C favorite, Arbor Prep, avenged a 24-point loss to the Class B Eagles from Jan. 25.
Districts at a Glance
These could be among our most competitive brackets. Host sites are in bold:
Fenton (14-6), Flint Carman-Ainsworth (18-2), Flint Southwestern (2-15), Flushing (16-4), Grand Blanc (10-10), Linden (0-19), Swartz Creek (9-11).
Reigning Class A champion Flushing held on to win another Flint Metro League championship and has won 16 of its last 18. But host Carman-Ainsworth is the likely favorite thanks in part to a 21-point win over the Raiders in the season opener. Carman-Ainsworth finished second in the Saginaw Valley League to one-loss Heritage, with its only losses to Heritage and reigning Class B champion Detroit Country Day. Carman-Ainsworth and Flushing would see each other in the District Final – but Fenton could get in the way. The Tigers face Flushing in tonight’s opener and beat Flushing by 18 just two weeks ago.
Bay City Central (3-17), Bay City Western (17-3), Midland (13-7), Midland Dow (15-5), Mount Pleasant (11-9), Saginaw Heritage (19-1).
These teams all play in the Saginaw Valley League, and that familiarity could be advantageous and dangerous for just about every team in the field. Heritage is a favorite to win the whole thing this season – but on its side of this bracket, Mount Pleasant has enjoyed its best finish in years and Midland bounced back from a 0-3 start to place fifth in the 14-team league. Dow and Western meet to start the other side of the bracket, with the Chargers winning their lone meeting by 12 two weeks ago – but the Warriors hoping to re-catch the momentum that helped them to a 13-0 start.
DeWitt (19-1), East Lansing (20-0), Grand Ledge (12-8), Lansing Waverly (11-9), Owosso (5-15), St. Johns (14-6).
There may be no more closely contended recent rivalry in the state than DeWitt versus East Lansing. Those Class A contenders have played three straight games decided by a point. The Trojans, boasting recently announced Miss Basketball candidate Jaida Hampton, won the Dec. 5 meeting 52-51 and also last season’s District Final over the Panthers 48-47 – after DeWitt won last season’s first matchup 59-58. They would face off again in this District Final. But don’t forget: Grand Ledge made back-to-back Class A Quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014 and the Semifinals the second time, and St. Johns made the Semifinals only two seasons ago.
Battle Creek Pennfield
Battle Creek Pennfield (15-5), Comstock (19-1), Marshall (10-10), Olivet (11-9), Parchment (6-14).
Comstock has been building to a season like this for the last five, and has increased its win total for the fourth straight already this winter. The Colts surely are looking forward to their first game this week against Marshall on Wednesday – the Redhawks have ended Comstock’s last four seasons. Marshall could be dangerous though with four wins in its last five games after making the Class B Semifinals last season and winning Class B in 2016. On the other side of the bracket, Pennfield finished third, two spots ahead of Marshall in a strong Interstate 8 Athletic Conference. The Panthers skidded a bit the last few weeks with three losses over their last five games, but those losses came to the other three top teams in the league.
Alma (15-5), Big Rapids (18-2), Clare (11-8), Remus Chippewa Hills (3-17), Shepherd (6-14), Stanton Central Montcalm (20-0).
Central Montcalm has jumped from seven to 12 to 17 and now 20 wins over the last four seasons and won the Central State Activities Association Gold with wins of nine and seven points over Big Rapids. Those were the only defeats this season for the host Cardinals, and a Semifinal rematch would be one of the state’s biggest Wednesday games. But Big Rapids can’t look past Alma in the opener – the Panthers finished second to Freeland (18-2) in the Tri-Valley Conference Central. On the other side of the bracket, Clare tied for third in a competitive Jack Pine Conference after sharing the league title a year ago.
Benzie Central (16-4), Cadillac (3-17), Kalkaska (15-5), Kingsley (20-0), Ludington (12-8), Manistee (11-9), Reed City (14-6).
Kingsley joins Central Montcalm as one of only two undefeated teams left in Class B, and the Stags’ run included handing Benzie Central two of its defeats. Kingsley would see Lakes 8 Conference runner-up Ludington in a District Semifinal, but wouldn’t see Benzie or Kalkaska until the championship game. Those two could meet Wednesday. Benzie must get past a Reed City team that finished fourth in a strong CSAA Gold – see references to Central Montcalm and Big Rapids above – while Kalkaska must get past a Manistee team that has won five of its last six.
Gwinn (9-11), Ishpeming (17-3), Ishpeming Westwood (14-6), Negaunee (20-0).
This is an all-Mid-Peninsula Athletic Conference District, and these are four of the top five finishers. Negaunee improved five wins this regular season despite scares from both Ishpeming and Westwood – the Patriots missed breaking up the perfect run by just a basket on Jan. 19, and they and Negaunee face off on one side of the bracket Wednesday. Ishpeming, which got within seven of Negaunee on Feb. 10, lost only to the Miners and Westwood this season but got a close game from Gwinn in their first meeting Jan. 9.
Bath (13-7), Brighton Charyl Stockwell (5-12), Byron (16-4), Dansville (2-18), Laingsburg (17-2), New Lothrop (18-2).
Host Laingsburg’s only losses this season were to reigning Class C runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia, but those two wouldn’t meet again until the Regional Semifinal. However, on the other side of this bracket Genesee Area Conference White champion New Lothrop won 18 straight before losing to Class B contender Goodrich last week, and Byron shared the GAC Blue title. They and Bath, also from Laingsburg’s Central Michigan Athletic Conference, will provide a strong challenger for this District title.
Traverse City St. Francis
Grand Traverse Academy (12-7), Manton (17-3), Maple City Glen Lake (18-2), Traverse City St. Francis (17-3).
Tonight’s opener will be one of the most intriguing in the state regardless of Class. Glen Lake finished second in the Northwest Conference with its two defeats both to Class B Kingsley (see above), and the Lakers beat St. Francis 60-49 on Dec. 6. St. Francis, meanwhile, finished off a Lake Michigan Conference championship with a win over rival Charlevoix last week (also see above). On the other side of the bracket, Manton also is a league champion, in the Highland Conference, and Grand Traverse Academy started 11-3 before running into a rough patch over the last few weeks.
Adrian Lenawee Christian
Adrian Lenawee Christian (19-1), Jackson Christian (7-13), Morenci (16-4), North Adams-Jerome (7-13), Waldron (15-5).
The host Cougars would appear a strong favorite. Their only loss was by a point to Class A Monroe (12-8) on Jan. 9, and they downed possible District Semifinal opponent Morenci 61-42 a week ago. However, Morenci has two 1,000-point scorers and is coming off a Tri-County Conference championship. The Bulldogs must be careful to not look past Southern Central Athletic Association Central champion Waldron tonight, however. The other side of the bracket may have the teams with lesser records, but their third meeting could be a classic after Jackson Christian edged North Adams-Jerome by only two and six points during the regular season.
Battle Creek St. Philip
Athens (16-4), Battle Creek Calhoun Christian (16-4), Battle Creek St. Philip (11-9), Bellevue (18-2), Marshall Academy (0-11).
Bellevue and Athens finished first and second, respectively, in the SCAA West, and are on opposite sides of this bracket. St. Philip also plays in that league, and four of its losses came to those two teams. Calhoun Christian won the Mid-South Conference but won’t be unfamiliar with the competition after playing and falling to all three SCAA teams during the season’s first two weeks. The Cougars are 15-1 since a 1-3 start.
Hillman (19-1), Onaway (10-9), Posen (10-8), Rogers City (15-4).
Hillman won its fourth straight North Star League Big Dipper title, and Rogers City has finished runner-up the last three seasons – this time the Tigers won their meetings by three and 13 points. They meet in one District Semifinal on Wednesday, while NSL Little Dipper champion Posen takes on host Onaway, which came in fourth in a Ski Valley Conference featuring at least a pair of possible Class D state contenders.
PHOTO: Laingsburg, here in a win over Fowler on Jan. 25, is among District hosts that could earn championships this week. (Click for more from Varsity Monthly.)
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.)