By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Three weeks remain in this girls basketball season, and the Countdown to Calvin is starting to get louder.
League tournaments are either underway or will start this week in the Detroit Public School League, Detroit Catholic League, Charter School Conference or Macomb Area Conference. And while every team gets a fresh start with MHSAA Districts, those single-elimination league competitions definitely set a postseason mood.
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 help us fill in missing scores, email me at [email protected].
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 57, Bay City Western 52 – All Saginaw Valley League teams are in one division this year, and this created a three-team jam in second place behind Saginaw Heritage as Carman-Ainsworth handed Western its first loss of the season.
2. East Lansing 63, Williamston 43 – These teams entered both undefeated and among the highest-ranked in Class A and B, respectively; they enter this week a combined 30-1.
3. Pittsford 49, Athens 32 – Bellevue’s upset of Athens two days earlier stole some of the excitement (more on that below), but the Wildcats did win their 70th straight game over another Class D power that had entered the week undefeated.
4. Macomb Dakota 53, Port Huron Northern 51 – The Macomb Area Conference Red continues to be one of the state’s most competitive leagues, and at least a share of this season’s title went to Dakota with this close win over Northern, which faces the other possible co-champ Grosse Pointe North on Wednesday.
5. Flint Beecher 58, Flint Hamady 48 – While both are still chasing Class B Goodrich in the Genesee Area Conference Red, Beecher can claim a regular-season sweep of its frequent Class C-contending rival.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each class making sparks:
Hartland (10-4) – The Eagles can’t catch Howell and repeat as a league champion, but they did hand the Highlanders their first league loss and second of this winter on Friday, 41-37. The win was the fourth straight for Hartland, which is 7-2 over its last nine games and had fallen to Howell in overtime Jan. 9.
Walled Lake Western (13-1) – The Warriors sit atop the Lakes Valley Conference in the league’s first year, with a key matchup against second-place South Lyon East coming up Tuesday. Western on Jan. 26 avenged its lone loss with a 51-43 win over Waterford Kettering – those two shared the Kensington Lakes Activities Association North title last season.
Ida (13-1) – The Bluestreaks have already claimed a share of the Lenawee County Athletic Association championship thanks to a three-game lead on the field. They haven’t lost since falling in the opener to Adrian Lenawee Christian, which is also 13-1. Ida finished second in the league last year to Blissfield, its opponent Friday.
Muskegon Oakridge (12-3) – The Eagles’ West Michigan Conference winning streak is up to 75 games and stretches most of this decade. They downed second-place Shelby 61-43 on Thursday and can clinch a share of another league title Tuesday against Scottville Mason County Central. Oakridge will look to improve next month on last season’s District title and has taken good losses against Class A Grand Haven, Muskegon and Muskegon Reeths-Puffer.
Charlevoix (10-3) – The Rayders scored the final 13 points over the final 1:13 to beat Traverse City St. Francis on Friday, creating a two-way tie between the rivals atop the Lake Michigan Conference. Keep in mind Charlevoix was only 3-19 two seasons ago before improving to 18-7 in 2016-17. The losses this winter came to Manton, St. Ignace and Kalkaska, which all have at least 10 wins.
Hartford (12-2) – The Indians trail only Centreville (14-1) in the Southwest 10 Conference, and both have at least four more wins than the rest of the league. While Centreville won their first meeting Jan. 12 by 41, Hartford deserves this recognition; it’s already surpassed last season’s 11-11 finish.
Bellevue (12-2) – The Broncos, last season’s Southern Central Athletic Association West champion, gave themselves a chance to catch newcomer Athens for at least a shared title this winter by handing the Indians their first defeat, 40-39 on Thursday. Bellevue had fallen to Athens by two points on Dec. 12 and also has lost to Pittsford (see note on 70-game winning streak above).
Gaylord St. Mary (14-1) – The Snowbirds have won every game since falling to Clare in their season opener, and only Bellaire on Jan. 17 has come within single digits of catching them. That 41-39 win put Gaylord St. Mary in first place in the Ski Valley Conference, but the rivals meet again Tuesday.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Bellaire (12-2) at Gaylord St. Mary (14-1) – The first meeting, and first place in the Ski Valley Conference, went to St. Mary 41-39. Both are likely Class D contenders as well.
Tuesday – Flushing (13-2) at Goodrich (10-3) – The reigning Class A champion and a regular Class B contender are leading their respective leagues this winter.
Tuesday – Freeland (13-2) at Alma (11-3) – The Falcons won the first meeting 47-38 and continue to hold a one-game lead on the Panthers in the Tri-Valley Conference Central along with a 37-game league winning streak.
Tuesday – Saginaw Heritage (13-0) at Midland (9-4) – Heritage won big the first time around, but this meeting counts in the league standings – and a Midland win would make the SVL at least a four-team race.
Wednesday – Detroit Renaissance (10-6) vs. Detroit Communication Media Arts (12-1) at Detroit East English – This PSL tournament second-round game pits a league champion in CMA and a runner-up in Renaissance.
PHOTO: Muskegon Oakridge's Sophia Wiard works to get past a Shelby defender during Thursday's win. (Photo by Sherry Wahr.)
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.)