Heritage Earns 'A' with Championship Effort

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2018

GRAND RAPIDS – Nothing could wipe the smiles off the faces of the Saginaw Heritage players and fans Saturday – not even a trophy to the head.

“Did you see our fans today? They’ve been out in full force all weekend long,” Heritage coach Vonnie DeLong said. “We’ve got a kid that’s been probably at every game and just split his head open on the trophy in the celebration, like he’s bleeding, our trainer is having to tend to him right now – I don’t know if he needs stitches or what. But, he’s got a smile on his face. He’s loving it.”

There was plenty to love for the Hawks at Van Noord Arena as they rolled to a 57-36 win in the MHSAA Class A championship game against East Lansing.

It was the first MHSAA title since 2002 for the Hawks (27-1), who were making their third appearance in the championship game.

“It’s just been a tremendous run,” DeLong said. “These kids have just gotten better every day, and I think that today we played a lot better than we did (in the Semifinal). I don’t think we played great (in the Semifinal), but I think today they came out with some resolve and they really wanted this state title today, and I think they played like it.”

Heritage used a balanced offense and dominant efforts on the glass and at the defensive end of the floor to hand East Lansing its first and only loss of the season.

The Trojans (26-1) shot 10 of 43 (23.3 percent) from the field as they struggled to figure out Heritage’s 2-3 zone defense, often having to settle for 3-pointers, which accounted for 22 of their 43 field goal attempts.

“They were moving on the flight of the ball, which is really good in the 2-3 defense,” said East Lansing senior and 2018 Miss Basketball winner Jaida Hampton, who finished with six points. “They got to where we were on the passes, and they were not allowing (passes into) the middle of the zone. It was open, but when you got there, they were tipping it, so they were just moving really, really well.”

East Lansing was held scoreless for a span of 7 minutes, 40 seconds during the first and second quarters, which allowed Heritage to initially put some space between the two teams. The Hawks took a 13-point lead into the break, and while East Lansing was able to get within nine in the second half, it couldn’t score consistently enough to fully mount a comeback.

It was the third time this season Heritage had broken out the zone defense, according to DeLong, who said she wanted to counteract East Lansing’s speed.

“I thought they were pretty quick for us, and we’ve traditionally played a lot of zone, but this year we played almost all man,” DeLong said. “I thought in our zone, it just gives us a different look, and it’s a struggle, I think – you might have seen that today with East Lansing – it was probably a little bit of a struggle for them to attack it.”

On the other end, Heritage had four players in double figures, and the one starter who wasn’t was Moira Joiner, the leading scorer during the season. She added six assists and nine rebounds to her four points.

Senior Madison Camp led the way with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Shine Strickland-Gills had 12 points and 12 rebounds, Jessica Bicknell had 12 points and Mallory McCartney had 10 points.

A good chunk of those points followed offensive rebounds, as the Hawks had 15, compared to 14 defensive rebounds for the Trojans. Heritage had a 43-23 rebounding edge overall.

“We are a team that doesn’t have a lot of size; it’s a necessity for us to box out to win games,” East Lansing coach Rob Smith said. “Tonight, we were victimized 43 times on the boards to only our 23. You’re not going to win too many basketball games in that situation. I gotta say, the Strickland kid there, she was just really, really good tonight. She was very, very tough down low, and we just didn’t have an answer for her.”

The secret for Strickland-Gills’ performance was a simple one – work hard.

“I don’t really expect it, I just kind of come out and I go hard,” Strickland-Gills said. “Most people would say I’m a defensive player, and that’s what I like to do; it’s effort. That’s all it takes to get 12 rebounds is effort. I know my teammates will get me to score, so I don’t really worry about that. My thing is just to play defense.”

Aaliyah Nye led East Lansing and all scorers with 18 points, all coming on 3-pointers as she was 6 of 10 from behind the arc. No other Trojan scored more than Hampton’s six. 

“I’m so proud to be the coach of this fine program, and most importantly these wonderful ladies that are sitting next to me and the other 11 that are in the locker room right now,” Smith said. “I know they’re disappointed with the outcome today, but the body of work is truly amazing.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTO: (Top) Saginaw Heritage celebrates Saturday after clinching the Class A championship at Van Noord Arena. (Middle) Heritage's Shine Stickland-Gills (32) battles East Lansing's Amelia McNutt for the ball. 

Howardsville Christian Striving to Transfer Fall Successes to Basketball Court

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

November 28, 2023

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.

Southwest CorridorIt 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."

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. 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.

The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (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 HassingerScott 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.)