Oscoda Teams Rise From Past to Perfection

February 8, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

OSCODA — The tide has turned in Oscoda.

After struggling year after year in boys and girls basketball, the Owls are enjoying quite a turnaround on the hardcourt this winter as both teams enter the final month of the regular season undefeated — just one of two schools in the state to be collectively unbeaten in boys and girls hoops.

The boys team boasts a record of 15-0 and is 9-0 in the North Star League Big Dipper division, while the girls squad has cruised to a 12-0 mark, including going 5-0 in league play.

It hasn’t always been that way, however.

“There’s a lot of years where we really struggled,” said Oscoda varsity boys basketball coach Seth Alda, a 2003 graduate of the school who is in his seventh year at the helm.  “It wasn’t that long ago. There were a lot of years where we not only struggled but a lot of teams beat us by quite a bit.”

The boys team has reached a stretch where it has failed to win a league championship in 27 years or District title in 18 straight seasons, while the girls program became infamous for having lost 89 consecutive games at one point.

“We went almost four and a half years without winning a game,” said Oscoda varsity girls basketball coach Mark Toppi, who took over the girls program four years ago. “They had only had a couple wins in the past three years before I took the job.”

The Owls had been caught in a rut for most of the last few decades, partly due to a precipitous decline in the school’s enrollment after Wurtsmith Air Force Base was decommissioned in 1993. As families left the area, Oscoda became a shell of itself. At one time Class B playing within the North East Michigan Conference, the school was unable to remain competitive with its league rivals as its student population was slashed in half. It eventually made sense to leave the NEMC, and Oscoda toiled as an independent before finding a landing spot in the Huron Shores Conference, which eventually morphed into a reconfigured North Star League in 2014.

Things began to trend in the Owls’ favor last season as a group of talented and ambitious athletes started making their mark. It’s a core of players who have gotten better by working hard, dedicating themselves, including honing their games and picking up additional competition on local travel teams.

“We kind of saw it coming,” said Alda. “Last year we were 14-8, which was our first winning season in 15 years. We returned a lot of players off that team. Last year we were young, and this year we’re still young. We have a lot coming back next year too.”

The Owls’ main core consists of juniors Brayden Mallak, Gabe Kellstrom, Devin Thomas and Chance Kruse, as well as sophomores Owen Franklin and Gavin Lueck.

“We’re guard-oriented,” said Alda. “We like to get up and down the court. We press. We shoot a lot of threes. Typically, we go four out and one in — four guards and one post player. We like to push the tempo. We like to increase possessions. We’ve got three kids (Mallak, Kellstrom and Franklin) who are shooting over 35 percent — a couple of them over 40 — from the 3-point line.”

The girls team managed to come up with 13 wins a year ago despite not having a senior on the roster. That was part of the ascent from three victories in Toppi’s first season, to seven wins two years ago. The 13-9 record in 2017-18 earned Toppi the Associated Press’ Class C Coach of the Year Award.

With all that returning experience from the best girls team Oscoda had seen in years, the Owls were primed for an even better season.

“I could tell we were going to have a good year, just because of all the work they put in over the summer,” said Toppi. “We had a lot of success (last summer). We play up all the time whenever we go to team camps. We always try to play Class B or Class A schools. We take a lot of beatings in the summer. This year was the first year that we were winning against some of those schools. That was a nice sign. I try to tell them, ‘If we’re losing by 15 to a Class A school, that’s not bad.’ This year we were beating some of them.”

The Oscoda girls team has a bit more experience than the boys, with senior Katelyn Etherton in her fourth year as a starting guard. She reached the 1,000-point mark in her career earlier this year. Junior post player Lauren Langley is another key veteran who teams with Etherton, and each average close to 17 points per game. Sophomore Macy Kellstrom leads the team in steals and assists as the point guard, and classmate Izzy Hulverson is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.

The problem the girls team has discovered is it isn’t getting pushed by the teams on its schedule. The Owls are winning by an average of 34 points per game. A 41-25 win over Tawas was the closest to date. Toppi hopes not having a close game during the regular season won’t hurt the Owls when they get to the postseason. For now, he’s just focused on getting the Owls ready for a tournament run.

“I’m just trying to get them to play hard and practice hard,” he said. “I don’t want them to look at the schedule. We’re still trying to get competition in practice and get better every day.”

The boys games have been a little less one-sided, particularly two clashes against league rival Mio. Oscoda beat the Thunderbolts both times, but one was a seven-point win in a back-and-forth game a week ago and the other was a 35-33 nail-biter earlier this season that wasn’t decided until Mallak drove the length of the court and scored on a buzzer beater.

The buzz has caught up to the Owls as the wins have continued to pile up for both teams.

“Around the school I feel like everybody’s wearing Oscoda across their chest a lot more proudly than what it was a while ago,” said Franklin. “Wherever you go, people know who you are now.

“Every practice Mr. Alda talks to us about how we could be the first in so many years to do this (or that). Early in the year we were 8-0 and he was like, ‘You’ve got a chance to go 9-0. That hasn’t happened in 30 years. He talks to us a lot about making history.”

The struggles the school endured in basketball are not forgotten, but both teams are doing their part to make better memories on the court. The girls already snapped a 48-game losing streak to nearby rival Tawas, and the boys swept the Braves for the first time in 20 years. The boys team is also close to ending that elusive conference championship drought, and both teams have their eyes on earning some District tournament hardware.

“I keep talking about how exciting it is when you get to tournament time, if you can make a run,” said Alda, who was a freshman on Oscoda’s last basketball Regional champion in 2000. “This is just a really cool thing to be a part of.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lauren Langley, left, and Brayden Mallak have been key to Oscoda’s perfect starts; Mallak here hits the game-winning shot against Mio. (Middle) Katelyn Etherton beats everyone to the basket during a win over Lincoln Alcona. (Below) The Owls celebrate that Mio victory Dec. 13. (Photos courtesy of the Oscoda girls and boys basketball programs.)

Howardsville Christian Striving to Transfer Fall Successes to Basketball Court

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

November 28, 2023

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.

Southwest CorridorIt 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."

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. 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.

The boys soccer and girls volleyball teams earned District titles during the fall. (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 HassingerScott 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.)