WATERFORD – Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes has taken a big step forward and become a perennial state power in girls basketball since Steve Robak became the coach before the 2007-08 season.
Robak guided the Lakers to a Regional Final that first winter and a Quarterfinal appearance in 2009 before Our Lady went on to play in its first MHSAA Final in the sport – and tie the Class D girls basketball record with three straight titles. The Lakers followed that run by losing in the 2013 championship game.
Although Our Lady hasn’t reached a Final since, the Lakers have been to the Semifinals three times (including last winter) and as far as the Quarterfinals on another occasion. The only season the Lakers haven’t won at least a District title under Robak was 2013-14.
Any coach who has experienced similar success will tell you it takes a certain amount of talent to reach this level. Robak is no different. But at this Detroit Catholic League school, you’ll find achieving such success goes far beyond talent.
Our Lady of the Lakes offers a community aspect to the high school experience that only a few small public and non-public schools provide. The students and faculty are like family, no more so than for Robak and his extended family.
Robak, 51, is a graduate of Our Lady and attended school there for 12 years, from 1st-12th grade. The school offers students a K-12 education and is one of four within the Catholic League to do so, along with Allen Park Cabrini, Dearborn Divine Child, Royal Oak Shrine and Clarkston Everest Collegiate. Thirty or 40 years ago this was quite common within the Detroit Catholic League. It isn’t so now and makes places like Our Lady rare, a fact not lost on those who attend or work within a parish school.
Vic Michaels is the director of athletics for the Detroit Catholic League, and in the 1980s was the boys basketball coach at Center Line St. Clement when it was a parish school.
“Years ago there were a lot of schools like that,” he said. “It’s a comfortable environment. You have the support of the parish. The kids continue through high school and, yes, you will get some new students. But (your) classmates, for the most part, remain the same.”
Robak is the oldest of seven children, all of whom went to Our Lady of the Lakes.
“There’s a real comfort there,” Robak said. “You’ve been friends for seven or eight years before you get to high school. We’ve had some come in the ninth grade, but it’s a small number. We’ve had two transfers in our program in my tenure.
“When you’re at a parochial school, (and people say), ‘Oh, you recruit.’ That doesn’t happen here. Our players come up through the system. That’s not to say we haven’t had some go on to play in college. I’m not a travel-AAU guy at all. A good athlete will be found no matter where you play.”
Another word that’s often associated with a winning program is stability. When Robak took over the program, his brother Paul came on as an assistant before switching to take over the boys program six years later. Replacing him was Tim Ross, the Robaks’ brother-in-law. Last season Paul returned to the girls program as an assistant.
We’re just starting with this family thing.
Steve had two daughters play for him: Lauren, a 2011 graduate, and Lexie, who graduated two years later. Both were all-staters. Ross had two daughters come through the system, Lindsay and Megan. And not to be left out, Paul’s oldest daughter, Brooklyn, is a sophomore on the team this season and one of the top players. Paul has another daughter, Elli, but she’s still in grade school. Another niece, Maria Oliver, is a freshman on the team.
Want more? Steve has two more daughters, currently in grade school, who are expected to be a part of the program in the future.
And therein lies a big reason for the program’s success. The students are in the same building from the elementary level through high school. The younger ones look up to those on varsity, and the coaches at all levels are on the same page teaching the same system.
“We get to the younger coaches, showing them how to teach our younger kids through clinics and stuff,” Steve said. “A lot of times volunteers are needed. When you have coaches who have the same philosophy, it helps. Also, winning helps. Winning has helped get kids out who might not have played.”
This season the Lakers are in a bit of a transition. Three starters graduated and there are just two seniors, two juniors and no junior varsity. Our Lady is 0-3 having lost to Flint Hamady, Romeo and Harper Woods Chandler Park, all from higher enrollment divisions, with a combined record of 9-1.
Isabelle Kline started playing basketball at Our Lady when she was in 6th grade. Kline rarely missed a varsity home game while in grade school and noticed the high level of determination those players displayed – which she said played a major role in her work ethic and development.
Now a junior, Kline, a three-year varsity player, is one of two starters returning. She said even though there isn’t a lot of experience, the team is progressing despite a slow start.
“We have a young team but the transition has been very good,” she said. “We’ve been bonding as a team.
“We came into (the game against Romeo) with our heads low, and that wasn’t the right thing to do. But we played incredible. We were talking on defense. It was a team effort. We played great team defense.
“We knew those (first three) teams we’re really good. When we saw who we were playing it was like, ‘Steve, what are you doing?’ But we played a tough (nonconference) schedule last year with Detroit Country Day and (Ypsilanti) Arbor Prep and we made it to the semis. We know we have to play good teams to get better.”
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Our Lady coach Steve Robak (standing) directs his team during last season’s Class D Semifinal against Chassell at Van Noord Arena. (Middle) Isabelle Kline (23) blocks a path as the Panthers look to push the ball up the floor.
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.)