While rematches and revenge will be the minds of many playing in Girls Basketball Regionals beginning tonight, rewards will be the end result for only 32 teams fortunate enough to advance past Wednesday and into the winter’s final week.
Below are three Regionals in each division that especially caught my attention, plus some of the District Finals that popped off the page over the weekend.
Countdown to Calvin is powered by MI Student Aid and based on results and schedules posted for each school at MHSAA.com. To offer corrections or fill in scores we’re missing, email me at [email protected].
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Haslett 44, Williamston 42 – After finishing second in the Capital Area Activities Conference Red to Williamston with losses of 19 and 13 points, Haslett handed the Hornets their first defeat since Dec. 17 to claim a Division 2 District title.
2. Pontiac Notre Dame Prep 71, Detroit Country Day 59 – The Fighting Irish remain one game below .500 this season, but following up an upset of Wixom St. Catherine with this Division 2 victory over the reigning Class B champion is what they’ll remember most about this season.
3. Kalamazoo Christian 42, Gobles 38 – Not only was Gobles undefeated entering this Division 3 District Final, but it had played just three single-digit games all season.
4. East Kentwood 57, East Grand Rapids 54 – The Ottawa-Kent Conference Red champion Falcons held on in Division 1 to edge the winners of the O-K Gold.
5. Brown City 41, Sandusky 31 – Three teams tied for first in the Greater Thumb Conference East, but only Brown City remains after winning this Division 3 District Final matchup of two of those champs.
Regionals at a Glance
These could be among our most competitive brackets. Host sites are in bold:
Coldwater (21-1) vs. East Lansing (20-2), Portage Central (16-4) vs. DeWitt (21-2)
This has been a historic season for Interstate 8 Athletic Conference champion Coldwater, as the Cardinals won their first league title since 1992 and are just a four-point loss to another District champ, Ann Arbor Pioneer, from a perfect record. But if Coldwater is to also win its first Regional title since 1991, it will have to break up the anticipated collision of CAAC Blue co-champs East Lansing and DeWitt. The Trojans – last year’s Class A runners-up – won the first meeting between the rivals, lost the second, and their only other defeat was by two points to Saginaw Heritage in a rematch of last year’s title game. DeWitt’s only other defeat came 24 hours after beating East Lansing, by four points to St. Johns. The Panthers, of course, can’t look ahead – Portage Central won the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West, although it may become important to note that the Mustangs fell to Coldwater by 38 in their regular-season finale.
Marquette (20-3) vs. Midland Dow (22-1), Saginaw Heritage (20-2) vs. Flint Carman-Ainsworth (18-5)
Saginaw Valley League Red rivals Midland Dow and Saginaw Heritage may get a rematch, after Dow won their lone regular-season meeting by four on Feb. 1 on Heritage’s home floor. That game ended up deciding the league title. But to get another chance at the Chargers, the Hawks first must defeat another league champion – SVL Blue winner Carman-Ainsworth – after also defeating the Cavaliers by seven on Jan. 9. Dow also has another league champ up first: Marquette won the Great Northern Upper Peninsula Conference, with only a two-point loss to Brighton and defeats to one-loss Ishpeming Westwood and Negaunee helping to make for a strong resume.
Southfield Arts & Technology
Grosse Pointe North (19-3) vs. Bloomfield Hills Marian (21-1), Southfield Arts & Technology (20-1) vs. Warren Cousino (15-8)
Three more league champions highlight this bracket. Macomb Area Conference Red winner Grosse Pointe North and Detroit Catholic League Central and A-B champ Marian face off in a rematch from early December, when the Mustangs won by 13. Marian’s only loss this season was the Division 2 favorite Detroit Edison by six points. Southfield A&T doubled up Detroit Public School League Tournament champion Detroit Mumford in their District Final last week and is a two-point loss to Heritage from a perfect run. This bracket really presents an opportunity for the MAC Red to show again why it’s considered one of the toughest leagues in the state after all six teams finished at least 12-9 this winter. North’s only other losses were to Division 2 powers Harper Woods Chandler Park and Detroit Country Day, and third-place Cousino fell by only three to Marian in both teams’ season opener.
Carlton Airport (21-1) vs. Dearborn Divine Child (13-9), Chelsea (22-1) vs. River Rouge (12-6)
Airport has won 20 straight games since falling to 2018 Class D champ Adrian Lenawee Christian on Dec. 13, and is playing for its first Regional title. But Divine Child is a dangerous opponent with wins in seven of its last nine games and both losses during that string to Marian. Similarly, Chelsea is playing for its first Regional title as well, and with just a two-point loss to Pioneer on Feb. 28 keeping it from perfection so far. But the Bulldogs first face another league champion in River Rouge, which prepped for the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference Blue schedule by taking on a number of the state’s best from Division 1. The Panthers opened this winter 2-5 against that strong competition, but its only loss since Jan. 8 came nonleague to Carman-Ainsworth.
Benton Harbor (4-15) vs. Plainwell (15-6), Hamilton (22-0) vs. Edwardsburg (23-0)
Of course the Hamilton/Edwardsburg matchup tonight is one of the state’s biggest regardless of division. Hamilton won its first Regional title in girls basketball last season, and Edwardsburg is hoping to accomplish the same for its program this week. The Ottawa-Kent Conference Green-winning Hawkeyes haven’t had a single-digit game since Jan. 11. While Edwardsburg won the Wolverine Conference South, Plainwell was second in the North and defeated a league champion in Comstock on Friday to move on to this week. Benton Harbor was one of the statewide surprises of the District round. The Tigers didn’t earn their second win this season until Feb. 19, but have now won three of their last five games and clinched the District title with two victories by a combined six points.
Freeland (20-2) vs. Corunna (20-2), Stanton Central Montcalm (22-0) vs. Frankenmuth (14-7)
Three more league champs help fill this Regional. Freeland from the Tri-Valley Conference Central and Corunna from the Genesee Area Conference Red both are returnees to Regionals, Freeland making it to the Class B Quarterfinals a year ago. The Falcons’ only losses this winter were to Division 1 contenders Dow and Heritage, while Corunna has bounced back from mid-winter defeats to Fowlerville and Division 3 power Flint Hamady. Central Montcalm is coming off its second straight perfect regular season and Central State Activities Association Gold title, and is seeking its first Regional title. Frankenmuth is the lone non-league champ in this bracket, having finished third in the TVC East. But the Eagles have won nine of their last 12.
Houghton Lake (21-0) vs. Hart (12-10), Oscoda (22-0) vs. Lake City (19-2)
The winner of this bracket will be celebrating something not accomplished in a long time – or ever. A pair of undefeated teams might seem destined to meet in the Regional Final – Oscoda, from the North Star League Big Dipper, is seeking its first Regional title and Jack Pine Conference champ Houghton Lake its first since 1992. But Lake City is only a pair of three-point losses to Highland Conference champion Manton from also being perfect, and the Trojans are seeking their first Regional title since 1976. Hart is also seeking its first since 1992 and on a roll after navigating a number of much larger and successful opponents in the West Michigan Conference.
Springport (18-3) vs. Michigan Center (19-3), Adrian Madison (21-1) vs. Laingsburg (19-4)
Michigan Center is riding high after avenging losses to Manchester on Wednesday and then Cascades Conference champion Grass Lake with a 49-44 overtime win Friday to clinch last week’s District. The Cardinals made the Class B Semifinals a year ago and can continue to put that tournament experience to work against Big 8 Conference champ Springport, although the Spartans have won 17 of their last 18 since starting 0-2. Adrian Madison slipped up against Manchester two weeks ago but otherwise won the Tri-County Conference by four games and has nearly doubled up last season’s 11 wins. Laingsburg provides an interesting wild card to this bracket – the Wolfpack don’t get much attention coming from the same Central Michigan Athletic Conference as Division 3 favorite Pewamo-Westphalia. But aside from two losses to the Pirates, Laingsburg hasn’t fallen since the first week of this season.
Sault Ste. Marie
Iron River West Iron County (19-2) vs. Ishpeming Westwood (22-1), Charlevoix (18-2) vs. Elk Rapids (17-5)
The Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper and Iron champs, respectively, face off on the Upper Peninsula side of this bracket. Westwood has been making good on high aspirations all season and is now playing for its first Regional title since 2008. The Patriots’ only loss came to Negaunee, and they then avenged it twice on the way to league and District titles. Westwood beat West Iron by 15 all the back on Dec. 11, and the Wykons haven’t lost since on the way to also winning a league title. They’re seeking their first regional title since 1986. From the other side of the Bridge, Charlevoix is playing for its first Regional title since 2004 after also winning its league and seeing junior Elise Stuck become the program’s all-time leading scorer. Charlevoix beat Elk Rapids twice on the way to winning their Lake Michigan Conference. But the Elks upset Manton on the way to winning last week’s District and would love to add a first Regional title since 1993.
Hillsdale Academy (14-8) vs. Portland St. Patrick (17-6), Athens (18-4) vs. Adrian Lenawee Christian (21-2)
The reigning Class D champ Cougars, led by sophomore standout Bree Salenbien, are a comfortable favorite this week with losses to only Division 3 powers Grass Lake and Michigan Center this winter. But Athens is surging. The Indians began last week’s District by avenging an opening night loss to Battle Creek Calhoun Christian, and then got past rival Bellevue in their District Final after losing twice to the Broncos during the regular season. On the other side, Hillsdale Academy has flipped last season’s 7-14 finish and won 10 of its last 13 games. And quite quietly, Portland St. Patrick followed up Division 3 District winners P-W and Laingsburg in the CMAC to tie for third in that league under six-time Class D champion coach Al Schrauben.
Mendon (17-3) vs. Martin (18-3), Fruitport Calvary Christian (18-5) vs. St. Joseph Michigan Lutheran (18-2)
Calvary Christian is seeking its first Regional title and Martin its first since 1995 in what could be one of the most unpredictable brackets in any division. Martin and Mendon both finished second in their leagues to Division 3 teams, and all six of their combined losses were to Division 3 opponents. Calvary Christian’s losses all were to Division 3 teams as well as the Eagles went undefeated in the Alliance League. Mendon last won a Regional title in 2014, but Michigan Lutheran has the most postseason experience of the quartet making the Quarterfinals in 2017 and the Regional Semifinals a year ago. The Titans enter as Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph White champs and coming off avenging one of their two defeats by beating Three Oaks River Valley in the District Final.
St. Ignace (23-0) vs. Hillman (12-11), Newberry (12-10) vs. Mackinaw City (22-1)
The Saints are a Division 4 favorite with wins over Detroit Mumford, Goodrich and Reese augmenting the usual run through league and area opponents. But on the other side of Mackinac Bridge is a hopeful Comets team seeking its first Regional title and with only a Dec. 10 loss to Brimley keeping them from perfection so far. St. Ignace and Mackinaw City wouldn’t meet until Wednesday, though, and their Regional Semifinal opponents have the needed momentum to make tonight challenging. Hillman opened this season with six straight losses and nine in its first 12 games, but the Tigers bounced back to go 9-2 over their last 11 games. Newberry survived a string of seven losses in nine games through January and February to win its last five and get past Brimley by a point in last week’s District Final.
Second Half’s weekly “Countdown to Calvin” reports are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Student Financial Services Bureau 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, including various student financial assistance programs to help make college more affordable for Michigan students. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 savings programs (MET/MESP) and eight additional aid programs within its Student Scholarships and Grants division. Click for more information and connect with MI Student Aid on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.
PHOTO: Marquette's Kaeleigh Talbacka drives to the basket as Traverse City West's Tacey Looze (22) stands her ground. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)
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.)