The toughest defender Sarah Miller has ever faced on a basketball court has been with her since birth.
This isn’t going to be about the Birch Run junior facing down personal challenges or looking into the mirror to stare down her greatest opponent. In fact, despite the fact she’s her twin, Emmaly Miller is not at all a mirror image of her sister. She’s just that good on defense.
“She’s very, I don’t know the word to say – she's feisty,” Sarah Miller said. “(Playing against Emmaly) in practices, it makes me move more without the ball, and that definitely benefits me in a game, helps me get open. She also gets in my head really easily. She knows how to tick me off.”
While it may make for some laborious practices, it’s also helped create the school’s most prolific scorer. Sarah Miller set the school record for career points this past Friday in a win against Essexville-Garber, reaching 1,380. It’s a remarkable feat considering she still has the postseason and her entire senior year to add to the record.
Or maybe it’s the other way around, and it’s created an incredible defender in Emmaly Miller, who has been tasked with guarding the opposition’s best offensive player for much of her career, and has thrived in that role.
Or maybe it’s both. Either way, when it comes to a game and they aren’t forced to compete against one another, it’s helping Birch Run.
“I always call it twin telepathy,” Birch Run coach Dan Kramer said. “They play a lot of those Gus Mackers in the offseason, and they know each other’s tendencies. They play really well with one another. We have a couple plays that they read each other so well on. We run one play with them, we actually call it ‘money,’ and eight out of 10 times, it’s two (points). It’s amazing.”
The Panthers are 12-8 on the season, and begin Division 2 District play March 6 against the winner of Monday’s Caro/Bridgeport opener.
The team got off to a slow start, losing its first three games while it attempted to find a new way to play, and Sarah Miller struggled with a foot injury. The Panthers won 11 of their next 14, however, and are playing well headed into the postseason.
“We beefed up our schedule a little this year to help us prepare for the Districts and the league,” Kramer said. “We really had a tough time defending the post early in the year. We have no size; we just have them go and try to beat (the opposition’s) bigs up the floor. They’re learning.”
When changing things up, it’s nice to have a set of talented twins to help usher it in. Emmaly Miller is the team’s point guard, while Sarah Miller plays as a two-guard and a wing. It’s a combination that has proven fruitful for the Panthers.
“This might be weird, but we always say we have some sort of telepathy going on,” Sarah Miller said. “I feel like when I go somewhere, she’ll know where I’m going to be. I can move without the ball, and she’ll find me. Emmaly is always the person who will find the open girl. She always knows where somebody is going to be. Her view of the floor is phenomenal.”
The Miller twins may be proof that the twin thing is actually a thing. Because as in sync as they are on the court, they’re not exactly on the same page off it.
“Her and I are polar opposites,” Sarah Miller said. “She ran cross country (as a sophomore), I play volleyball. She doesn’t really like basketball – well, she does, but she tells people that she doesn’t. Emmaly is super interested in history, and I think history is the most boring thing in the world. I love math, she – she just shook her head, she hates math. Emmaly likes rap, I like country. There are so many other things we don’t have in common. Every time we’re in the car, there’s always an argument.”
Emmaly Miller is more interested in track & field. As a sophomore, she was an MHSAA Finals qualifier and the Tri-Valley Conference East champion in the 400 meters.
Still, she was a varsity basketball player as a freshman, even if she wasn’t sure she belonged at first.
“It was very intimidating, and I felt like a lot of the reason I was on varsity was because they pulled Sarah up and didn’t want to separate the twins,” Emmaly Miller said. “It took a while before Kramer was like, ‘No, you belong here.’”
Kramer said that he saw something in Emmaly early on that gave him the confidence she could compete at the varsity level in her first year.
“Emmaly had never played point guard, and we brought them both to team camp in Charlevoix and we could not get anyone to keep from turning it over,” Kramer said. “I said, ‘Emmaly, run the point,’ and we saw flashes and kind of turned her into a point guard. It’s not her natural position, but she’s so fast, she can turn girls inside out. She’s tough to stop when she puts her mind to it.”
Kramer said his team is at its best when Emmaly Miller is being more aggressive and taking as many as 10 shots per game. Getting into that mindset is a bit more difficult for her.
“I’ve definitely had confidence issues when it comes to shooting,” she said. “I really don’t like doing it that much in general. However, I do know that I am most likely the fastest person on the court, so getting past defenders is pretty easy for me.”
It’s the defensive end where Emmaly Miller shines the most, however.
“You don’t want her guarding you, because she will shut you down,” Kramer said. “That’s the one thing we have that those other teams don’t have, is Emmaly Miller. If Emmaly played Sarah, I think she would hold her to half of what she scores.”
Fortunately for the Panthers, that can happen only in practice, and Sarah Miller has been scoring on everyone for the past three years. She flashed onto the scene immediately, scoring 17 points in the first half of her first game as a freshman.
“Literally, the second game of summer camp, I told my assistant, ‘She’s going to be first-team all-conference her freshman year,’” Kramer said.
He was right, and as a sophomore, Sarah Miller was named all-state in Class B by The Associated Press. She’s averaging nearly 25 points per game this season and has 2,000 career points in her sights.
“I had no idea I was going to break (the school record), so when they announced it, I was shocked,” Sarah Miller said. “I’m obviously not done yet, and I know I’ve completed something, but there’s more I need to do. I’m definitely going to try to push myself to get 2,000 points. I think that’s something I can accomplish having Emmaly with me and that bond we have.”
Sarah Miller recently committed to play basketball after high school at Saginaw Valley State University. She’s excited to have that out of the way, and for the future.
Despite all their differences, and the fact they sometimes want to fight each other in practice or while picking music in the car, she’s not as excited about the very real chance it could mean she and her sister will go their separate ways.
“We were talking about it last week, and I just started crying,” Sarah Miller said. “She wants to go to Michigan State, and I said, ‘If you’re going to Michigan State, we’re going to be so far apart.’ It’s hard to take in. She’s my twin, and we’ve been together since we were in the womb.”
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) Twins Emmaly (left) and Sarah Miller make up a talented backcourt for Birch Run. (Middle) The sisters share a quick hug during a game this season. (Photos courtesy of the Birch Run girls basketball program.)
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.)