By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Frank Orlando’s 50th season as a high school coach has been much like many of them – he’s enjoyed another championship contender, led by multiple all-staters, and he’ll bring that team into the final day of the season once again.
But there could be something a little special as Detroit Country Day’s longtime girls basketball leader closes a half century on the bench.
Orlando couldn’t hold back every tear talking about it briefly Friday, after a few laughs when star Destiny Pitts hushed him for giving away the team’s defensive secrets, and as the Yellowjackets decompressed from eliminating reigning Class B champion Marshall 46-42 in their Semifinal matchup.
They’ll face either Freeland or Ypsilanti Arbor Prep in Saturday’s championship game at the Breslin Center, seeking a 12th MHSAA title over Orlando’s 36 seasons leading the program – another piece of hardware to add to a tradition this latest group has maintained.
“I don’t know if you remember last year, but I told you we’d be back here,” recalled Pitts, referencing her prediction after the Yellowjackets fell in a Semifinal in 2016. “Coach O’s 50th year is just so important to us, and getting the tradition instilled in our seniors so we can pass it down to the juniors and sophomores and freshmen. … It’s important to bring (the title) back to our friends, our school and our teachers, because they all believe in us.”
Friday’s Semifinal wasn’t decided until the final minute, something that might’ve seemed to favor Marshall after it won its Semifinal last season with two last-second free throws on the way to claiming the program’s first MHSAA title the next day.
But it was Country Day’s turn after the 2015 champ fell two wins short a year ago.
After Marshall led most of the second quarter, the Yellowjackets (25-1) led most of the third and fourth.
Redhawks senior Jill Konkle – one of four returning starters from last season’s team – scored with 1:48 to play to give Marshall a two-point edge. But the rest belonged to the Yellowjackets.
Junior guard Kaela Webb scored and then made two free throws to give her team a two-point lead with 44 seconds to play. Pitts added two more free throws for the final margin. In between, senior Tylar Bennett and junior Maxine Moore blocked Marshall shots, ending this season’s attempt at last-minute drama.
“They never quit, they kept their heads up and they kept playing hard, and that’s all I can say – they never gave up ever once,” Orlando said. “We worked hard on blocking. When they were coming, we told (our players) to wait, wait, wait, and then block. But don’t go after them right away because they are too good at what they do (with head fakes).”
The defensive stand characterized one of the key changes Webb described from last season’s team. In addition to more aggressiveness on that side of the court, these Yellowjackets also have shared the ball more, averaging more than 15 assists per game even as they had just 10 Friday.
It truly was strength on strength, as Country Day used only two subs for a total of eight minutes and Marshall used one sub for nine. Pitts led the Yellowjackets with 13 points and five assists and Bennett added 10 points as all five starters scored at least five.
Konkle and senior forward Nikki Tucker both scored 13 points to lead Marshall (23-3), and junior guard Natalie Tucker had nine points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
The Redhawks’ loss brought to an end a two-season 49-4 run that made a nice statement on the value of team basketball in a class where contenders often have one or more stars.
“I think the biggest thing is last year we proved to a lot of people that you don’t need DI (college) players,” said Tucker, who will play Division II hoops next season. “We aren’t a team that’s extra tall. We’re not a team that super quick. We’re not a team that’s crazy athletic. But we work together and we move the ball and we make shots when we need to make shots, and that’s all you need to do to play basketball. I don’t need a million DI commits when I have a great team.”
Marshall graduates five seniors who have been touted in their community since elementary school, and proved those high expectations correct last season. Redhawks coach Sal Konkle – also Jill’s mother – thought that was heaping a bit much on the youngsters at the time, but in the end this truly was a defining group.
“They have really instilled a work ethic in this program – we’ve always worked hard, but this is an extra special group that works extremely hard,” Sal Konkle said. “They just plain and simple do what you ask them to do, and they do it 100 miles an hour and with 100 percent effort all the time.
“What’s they’ve done is left a legacy for our team in the future here. The freshmen and the sophomores and the juniors on our team this year, they know how hard you have to work to get results, and they know how hard you have to work to reach your goals. We will still have lofty goals next year, and they’re going to have to work hard like these kids did.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Country Day’s Destiny Pitts works to get past Marshall’s Georgianna Pratley during Friday’s Class B Semifinal. (Middle) Redhawks senior Nikki Tucker drives to the basket.
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.)