By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The final minutes are ticking down until Michigan’s finest girls basketball teams play for MHSAA championships this weekend at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena.
Our final “Countdown to Calvin” report – powered by MI Student Aid – takes a glance at all 16 Quarterfinals, which are all at 7 p.m. unless noted. All Quarterfinals will be broadcast and viewable with subscription on MHSAA.tv. And come back Wednesday night for a more in-depth look at our 16 finalists as they head into this weekend.
Grosse Pointe North (19-5) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (18-3) at Southfield Arts & Technology – 5 p.m.
Grosse Pointe North will play in its first Quarterfinal since 2010, while King will be back for the first time since 2012. The Norsemen have only one senior and are paced by 6-foot-2 junior guard/forward Julia Ayrault (19 ppg, 10.3 rpg). Senior guard Jordan Lewis (14 ppg) leads three Crusaders averaging double-digit scoring. Two of King’s three losses are to reigning MHSAA champions.
Clarkston (20-4) vs. Saginaw Heritage (24-1) at Grand Blanc
Heritage is back in the Quarterfinals for the third time in six years and first since 2015, while Clarkston has made the final week for the first time since 2005. The Hawks – whose only loss was to reigning Class C champ Detroit Edison, by a basket – are paced by junior guard Moira Joiner (14.6 ppg, 4.2 apg). Seniors Maddie Beck (14.4 ppg) and Kayla Luchenbach (14.1 ppg) have the Wolves on an eight-game winning streak.
East Lansing (24-0) vs. Muskegon (22-2) at DeWitt
East Lansing will play in its second Quarterfinal in three years to make it to the Semifinals for the first time since 2010. The Trojans are led by newly-honored Miss Basketball Award winner Jaeda Hampton (15 ppg, 57 3-pointers). Muskegon is coming off its first Regional title and has won 19 straight, keyed by junior guard Alyza Winston (19.6 ppg).
Wayne Memorial (21-4) vs. Hartland (20-5) at Southfield Arts & Technology
Wayne is another first-time Regional champion, led on this march by Miss Basketball finalist Camree’ Clegg (23.7 ppg, 6.4 apg). Hartland won its second Regional title, and second in four seasons, and will try to make its first Semifinal in part on the post power of 6-4 sophomore Whitney Sollom (10.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 4.7 bpg.)
Hamilton (24-1) vs. Jackson Northwest (23-1) at Marshall
Both of these quarterfinalists are coming off their first Regional titles in program history. Hamilton has won 24 straight since losing to Jenison in its opener, paced in part by senior Ashlen Wolfram (10.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg). Northwest’s only defeat came early as well to Battle Creek Harper Creek; the Mounties are on a 21-game winning streak with junior guard Sydney Shafer pouring in a team-high 17 ppg.
Michigan Center (22-2) vs. Harper Woods Chandler Park (17-6) at Tecumseh
Michigan Center, up from Class C this school year, is making its first Quarterfinal appearance since 2005. After falling to an uncharacteristic 6-15 in 2015-16, the Cardinals are 42-6 over the last two seasons and start one senior with four underclassmen. Chandler Park is playing in its first Quarterfinal, with freshman Emaia O’Brien (12.7 ppg, 43 3-pointers) an impressive leading scorer while playing against a loaded schedule.
Detroit Country Day (20-4) vs. Freeland (23-2) at West Bloomfield
Reigning Class B champion Country Day is going for its third title in four seasons, led by Miss Basketball finalist Kaela Webb (15.9 ppg). All four of its defeats are to teams still alive this week. Freeland advanced to the Semifinals a year ago, and its only losses are to Class A teams. The Falcons are led by the Argyle sisters – senior guard Kaylee and junior forward Alyssa, both averaging 11.5 points per game.
Muskegon Oakridge (22-3) vs. Kingsley (25-0) at Cadillac
Oakridge broke through with its first Regional title since 1991, and will try to extend the run against an undefeated Stags team playing in the final week for the first time since 2008. Junior guard Sophia Wiard is the playmaker for the Eagles, averaging 22.8 points and 4.2 assists per game. Sophomore guard Brittany Bowman (11.5 ppg) and junior guard Jacie King (10.1 ppg) are leading scorers and two of three Kingsley players with at least 30 3-pointers.
Detroit Edison (21-1) vs. Flint Beecher (18-5) at Howell
Reigning Class C champ Edison has been even more dominant this season, beating Wayne Memorial (twice), Country Day, Heritage and St. Ignace among others. Junior 6-3 guard Rickea Johnson (22.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and sophomore guard Gabrielle Elliott (16.4) are stars. Beecher got through rival Hamady and others to reach its first Quarterfinal since 2003, with senior guard Imani Thompson (13.5 ppg) leading three averaging double-digit scoring.
Pewamo-Westphalia (24-0) vs. Kent City (22-3) at Cedar Springs
Reigning Class C runner-up P-W has had one single-digit game all season, in the District Final against Springport, but should expect a good one tonight from a Kent City team coming off its first Regional title since 1989. Freshman guard Kenzie Bowers leads Kent City with 19.5 points and 5.1 steals per game. Senior guard Emily Spitzley (17 ppg) keys a Pirates starting lineup that features three sophomores.
Schoolcraft (25-0) vs. Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (19-5) at Bronson – 6 p.m.
After making the Quarterfinals last season for the first time, Schoolcraft is back for the second straight. Senior guard Lydia Goble (19.5 ppg) has made an astounding 75 3-pointers and will have to be a focus for Arbor Prep, last season’s Class B runner-up. The Gators are led by Miss Basketball finalist and senior guard Lasha Petree, who averages 20.2 points per game and has 42 3-pointers.
Maple City Glen Lake (22-2) vs. St. Ignace (23-1) at Gaylord
Glen Lake is seeking its second straight trip to the Semifinals after getting past St. Ignace in last year’s Quarterfinal. The Lakers’ only losses this winter are to undefeated Class B contender Kingsley, and senior guard Savannah Peplinski (15.6 ppg) leads a mostly veteran lineup. The Saints surely have been looking forward to this opportunity. Their only loss this season was to Edison. Junior forward Emily Coveyou (18.3) and senior forward Linnie Gustafson (16.3) are a productive 1-2 scoring punch.
Gaylord St. Mary (23-1) vs. Chassell (24-1) at Sault Ste. Marie – 6 p.m.
St. Mary has lost three Quarterfinals over the last six years by a combined five points. The Snowbirds are hoping senior guards Averi Bebble (11.5 ppg) and Alex Hunter (13.7 ppg, 31 3-pointers) can help them get to the Semifinals for the first time since 2002. Chassell battled through a pair of close Regional games to reach the Quarterfinals for the first time. The Panthers are keyed by a senior pair as well – guard Milly Allen (15.5 ppg) and 6-1 center Sydney Danison (13.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg).
Waterford Our Lady (18-4) vs. Kingston (23-0) at Burton Bendle – 6 p.m.
These two will meet in a Quarterfinal for the third time in four seasons. Kingston is looking to reach its first Semifinal and Our Lady its seventh in eight seasons after falling in the Quarterfinal to Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary a year ago. Junior forward Carley Smith (10.7) leads a balanced Kingston lineup with four players averaging at least 8.5 ppg. Senior forward Tiffany Senerius puts up 14 ppg for Our Lady and has made 41 3-pointers.
Athens (21-4) vs. Adrian Lenawee Christian (23-1) at Richland Gull Lake
Athens will play in its fifth Quarterfinal this decade but first since 2014 against a Lenawee Christian team making the trip back for the first time since finishing Class D runner-up in 2010. Four senior starters have helped the Indians through a tough tournament run that’s included avenging a loss to rival Bellevue. Lenawee Christian is paced by 6-2 freshman guard Bree Salenbien (21.3 ppg) and has been perfect this season aside from a one-point loss to Class A Monroe.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (24-0) vs. Bellaire (21-3) at Scottville Mason County Central
The Irish have won six straight Regional titles and come into this game undefeated for the second year in a row. Last season they made it to the Semifinals before falling to eventual champion Pittsford. Sacred Heart is leaning on a lineup with four seniors, including Sophia Ruggles (15.6 ppg), and junior guard Scout Nelson (13.8 ppg, 5.1 apg) to take another step. Bellaire has won more than 20 games for the third time in five seasons and broke through for its first Regional title, led by senior forward Lexi Niepoth (14.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg).
PHOTO: East Lansing’s Aaliyah Nye (32) guards a Grand Ledge ball handler during a District win two weeks ago. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)
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.)