EAST LANSING — To say Hudsonville’s Jaci Tubergen and Alaina Diaz were locked in during Friday’s Division 1 Final would be an extreme understatement.
One of them went on an 11-0 personal run, while the other had ice water in her veins during a three-minute stretch that helped her team fend off Detroit Renaissance, 65-61, to capture the first girls basketball state championship in Hudsonville history.
Tubergen broke open what had been a tie game just minutes earlier. The junior took a pass from senior Ashlynn Bailey and drilled a 3-pointer from the wing to give her team a five-point lead with 4:37 remaining in the first half. On their next possession, the Eagles once again found Turbergan open, this time from the opposite wing. She hit another 3-pointer to push the lead to eight. A traditional three-point play and baseline jumper by Tubergen capped off a personal 11-point run to push Hudsonville’s lead to 47-34.
“To see shots go in, it’s a good feeling,” said Tubergen, who finished with a game-high 28 points. “Alaina handling the pressure as the point guard and other girls attacking and kicking (out), they got me pretty open. I’m lucky to have teammates who are willing to drive in and draw the defenders, leaving people open on the wings.”
Tubergen would finish with 16 points in the third quarter alone, as the Eagles saw a one-point halftime lead balloon to 14 points heading into the fourth.
But Renaissance, which battled back from a big deficit in Wednesday’s Semifinal against Wayne Memorial to make it to Friday’s Final, wasn’t finished. The Phoenix scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter to cut the Eagles’ lead to two points at 54-52. Senior Shannon Wheeler had three steals and senior Mikyah Finley had two herself during the run to help their team get back into the game. Senior Kailee Davis had five of her team-high 26 points over that stretch.
“They did a great job of mixing up defenses,” Hudsonville head coach Casey Glass said. “I think when you play in the moment like that, you let one thing lead to another. The big thing for us was to weather the storm. We knew that they were going to apply pressure. We knew there were going to be spurts in the game.”
The Eagles certainly did weather the storm. Moments after missing the front end of a one-and-one, Diaz calmly stepped back up to the line and sank a pair of free throws which gave her team a 56-52 lead with 2:44 to play. Those were the first points of the fourth quarter for Hudsonville.
Diaz wasn’t done. She would go on to make six more free throws without a miss to help her team pull out the victory.
“I’m just used to the pressure because at practice we usually have pressure free throws and I’m just thinking that I have to do it for my family, my teammates,” said Diaz, who finished 9 of 10 from the line. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
Renaissance would make another late push, but came up short. The Phoenix were just 18 of 30 from the free throw line.
“The press eventually starts to get to you, and it eventually started to get to them,” Lawal said. “I just think that we had a few chances after they turned it over (to us), or when we kind of got them to take a rushed shot that led to a rebound and fast break, we weren’t able to convert like we did Wednesday (against Wayne Memorial). I think that’s the biggest difference.”
And he did touch on his team’s missed opportunities at the line:
“I’m not going to give coach (Greg) Kampe credit for this quote, because I’m sure he stole it from someone, but he said, ‘Two things in this world that don’t last, dogs that chase cars and teams that don’t make free throws.’ We didn’t make free throws, so we didn’t last. We got away with it Wednesday against Wayne Memorial. God said you’re not going to get away with it twice.”
Finley finished with 13 points and Wheeler added nine points and eight rebounds for Renaissance, which finished 13-5.
Hudsonville capped off a magical season which saw it finish 23-1. Diaz ended the day with 15 points and seven rebounds, while junior Eva Joldersma had four points and 11 rebounds in her team’s win.
“Going into tonight, I said to myself, ‘I’m the luckiest coach in the state of Michigan,’ ” Glass said. “I’ve gotten more time with my team this year, being in a state championship (game), than any other coach. When you coach, you’re looking for how much time you can spend with your players, or how much impact you can make as a coach. Our team has always been like family. We play together, we push each other.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudsonville's Emmalynn Costen (5) establishes position in the post during Friday's Division 1 Final. (Middle) Renaissance's Nika Dorsey (12) works to get the ball upcourt. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)