Since she first stepped onto the hardwood more than a decade ago, Aaliyah McQueen has felt at home on the basketball court.
The sport has helped get her through the toughest time in her life, develop some of her greatest friendships, and opened the door to a bright future.
So, while the Flint Carman-Ainsworth senior juggles the excitement of starting her college career at University of Illinois this coming fall, and the nerves that come along with leaving her geographic home – the presence of basketball helps keep her calm.
“I think it didn’t hit me until a couple days after my signing, that this will be the last time coming to my high school, having practice with my teammates and seeing familiar faces every day,” McQueen said. “I won’t really be home with my family – I'll be a long way from home – and basically I’ll be on my own. But that’s why Illinois was the perfect fit for me. Not only (Illini assistant coach and Flint native Tianna Kirkland), but just the people around there. The weather is colder, too, so it’s kind of similar. But I feel like I’m going to be OK as long as I’m playing basketball. It keeps me mentally sane.”
It was basketball that helped McQueen deal with tragedy at a young age. After the death of her father in 2007, McQueen’s mother signed her up for basketball to help her focus on something positive.
“When my father died, there wasn’t really anything for me to do,” McQueen said. “It’s a pretty dangerous city around where I’m from, and my mom didn’t want me to follow in any bad footsteps because I was grieving. I was already talented a little bit. I was kind of better than some of the kids and I was like, ‘Maybe this might be something.’”
It clearly was, and by middle school, McQueen made the jump to AAU, playing for multiple teams and traveling the country to put her skills on display against strong competition and in front of myriad college coaches. She said her first contact with a college coach came during sixth grade.
“At the time I was younger, so I was like, ‘Wow,’” McQueen said. “I was in shock. I was really happy. It was like, ‘Maybe I am good.’ I never really was like cocky or anything about myself, but I had never really thought I was that good. Once you see the results, that tells you you’re doing something right, and at that time I thought that I needed to keep doing what I’m doing.”
McQueen’s high school career actually started at Goodrich, where she transferred to in eighth grade. She came back to Flint after her freshman year, however, as it felt more like home.
“Me coming to Carman, I think, might have been a good thing for me in opening up a lot more and becoming more talkative and outspoken,” she said. “I didn’t really talk much at Goodrich. I was more of ‘only speak when spoken to.’ Just being around the people I grew up with, that kind of opened me up as a person.”
Finding the right home was important when selecting a college, so when McQueen chose Illinois over 20 other offers, Kirkland was a major reason why. The former Ferris State two-sport star has been at Illinois for eight years, but her connections to the state of Michigan run deep. Not only is she a Flint native, but she also coached at Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan before making the move to Illinois.
“She’s from here, and she knows how it is here,” said McQueen, who added that talking with Kirkland is like getting a Flint history lesson. “I really like that, and we connected right away.”
While McQueen plays guard at times for the Cavs, she’s used all over the court in coach Lance Belill’s system – which both player and coach agree will make her a better collegiate player.
“She’s going to be a physical guard for them, just because she’s been guarding bigger players at the high school level,” Belill said. “She’s going to be a guard who can score, rebound, but most importantly get the other girls open looks.”
While Belill said McQueen’s versatility is her greatest strength at the high school level, it’s her court vision and passing that he said would shine in college.
“I think that’s even going to be magnified at the next level,” he said. “A lot of times, she sees things that the other girls don’t.”
Before she heads to Illinois, McQueen still has some work to do at home, as she and her Carman-Ainsworth teammates have the makings of a special season ahead of them.
The Cavaliers are 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in Division 1 in the Michigan Power Ratings index. They have six seniors, including two entering their fourth years with the program – Chenelle King and Jessiana Aaron. Through their first six games, the Cavs have had four players lead the team in scoring, including McQueen with 21 in their most recent win Dec. 27 against her former school.
Carman-Ainsworth’s last two seasons both ended in the Regional round at the hands of eventual Class A/Division 1 Finals champion Saginaw Heritage. There’s a feeling within the program that this year could end differently – but either way, McQueen plans to enjoy her final year at home.
“There are a lot of us that pretty much grew up together, the seniors,” McQueen said. “We’re all talented, and we’re all good basketball players. We’re all really focused for states, but we have to come together and stay united as one, and just have fun our senior year.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Flint Carman-Ainsworth’s Aaliyah McQueen, left, works to gather a loose ball this season during a win over Flint Kearsley. (Middle) McQueen brings the ball upcourt. (Top photo by Terry Lyons; middle photo courtesy of Aaliyah McQueen.)
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.)