EAST LANSING – As the final seconds of his 12th MHSAA title run at Detroit Country Day ticked away, legendary coach Frank Orlando was serenaded as his school's student section chanted: “We love Coach O.”
Orlando acknowledged the fans, wiped away some tears, and moments later accepted the Class B girls basketball championship trophy along with a group of girls that were extra special to him. And after their 59-48 win against Ypsilanti Arbor Prep at the Breslin Center, they made it very clear that he’s extra special to them as well.
“This season, I really wasn’t thinking about the loss (in the 2016 Semifinals); for me personally, I was playing for Coach O,” Country Day senior Destiny Pitts said. “During the offseason last year after we lost, Coach O had a stroke, so it just kind of hit me hard. This season, I’ve been playing for him, and just knowing how important it is for him. Coming into this, we just had extreme confidence because we just knew we wanted to take the state championship back to Country Day for the fans and our community.”
Country Day’s 12th title came two years after No. 11, which was won with many of the same players as the latest triumph. That one came as a bit of a surprise to Orlando – this one brought out plenty of emotion.
“When we won it when they were sophomores and freshmen, I was excited and I was very happy – I was kind of surprised,” said Orlando, who opened the press conference by stating he planned to come back in 2017-18 for his 37th season at Country Day and 51st overall. “This year, it was more emotional because they’re leaving me now. I like that they’re going, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of sad for me.”
Country Day’s shooting effort was the opposite of sad, as the Yellowjackets hit 22 of 34 (64.7 percent) shots from the field, including 7 of 12 (58.3 percent) from 3-point range. Pitts led the way with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Tylar Bennett had 15 points on 7 of 8 shooting, and Kaela Webb had 13 points and nine assists.
“I think we did that by moving the ball,” Pitts said. “We weren’t forcing shots, we would just keep swinging the ball until we found the open person, and I think each individual player on the team did extremely well sharing the ball, and when they were open they shot it.”
The Yellowjackets (26-1) led for most of the game, moving ahead late in the first quarter and never relinquishing the advantage. They jumped out to a 27-15 halftime lead, holding Arbor Prep to 5 of 24 (20.8 percent) shooting during the opening 16 minutes.
“I thought Country Day played a real good game,” Arbor Prep coach Rod Wells said. “They made a lot of shots, and first half we didn’t make shots, and it was just hard to make up that gap. I’m truly proud of my girls, my girls brought effort, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t fall that way.”
Arbor Prep (27-1), which won the Class C title a year ago, pushed back in the second half, but every time it looked to get momentum and cut into the Country Day lead, the Yellowjackets had an immediate answer.
Ro’zhane Wells hit a pair of 3s on back-to-back possessions, but Country Day responded with a jumper from Webb the first time and a 3 from Pitts after the second. A Lasha Petree 3-pointer cut the Country Day lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter, but Maxine Moore’s putback halted the momentum. Another Pitts’ 3 on Country Day’s next possession pushed the lead back to 16 with less than six minutes to play.
Arbor Prep cut the lead to nine twice with less than three minutes to play, Country Day responded with a pair of press-breaking layups from Bennett, the second sparking a 9-1 run that put the game away for good. Webb assisted on all but one of those baskets during the run, the other being a 3-pointer she drained from straightaway.
“We played a lot better in the second half,” Rod Wells said. “It took us a while to adjust to the zone. Country Day played us man in the beginning, then they went to the matchup zone and they gave us some problems until halftime. But I’m really proud of my girls, three losses in two seasons. We beat the Class A state champs and the Class C state champs; we just didn’t beat the Class B.”
Petree led Arbor Prep with 15 points and six rebounds, while Wells had 14 points. Adrienne Anderson added seven points and five assists for the Gators, who were making their third straight trip to Breslin and had won 36 straight games.
“I think it’s been a phenomenal run,” Anderson, a senior, said. “I think we’ve pushed each other the whole time, and we’ve had a lot of fun. I love these girls to death. Even after we leave we’re still going to be close, because these are my sisters. Every day in practice we worked hard. I feel like everybody left everything they could’ve done on the court. Country Day just made shots.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Country Day’s Maxine Moore (44) battles Arbor Prep’s Lasha Petree for a loose ball during the Class B Final. (Middle) Yellowjackets Kaela Webb (left) and Destiny Pitts celebrate the program’s latest title with coach Frank Orlando.
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.)