By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GRAND RAPIDS – Seniors Moira Joiner, Shine Strickland-Gills and Mallory McCartney have helped Saginaw Heritage to a 93-7 record over their four seasons on varsity.
They earned one more opportunity to take the court together Thursday by tapping into what’s made them one the most successful senior classes in Michigan girls basketball history.
After leading Wayne Memorial most of the first three quarters of the day’s first Division 1 Semifinal, the Hawks found themselves behind by a basket with 5:47 to play.
But the lessons of nearly 100 wins – and last year’s Class A title run – came through at the end as Heritage held on for a 58-55 win to earn the opportunity to repeat as an MHSAA champion.
Wayne also was a semifinalist last season, and provided plenty of trouble with senior Jeanae Terry scoring a game-high 26 points. But Heritage got through some rough patches – like 21 turnovers – and made 4 of 5 shots from the floor and all five free-throw attempts after trailing for 23 seconds during the final period.
“We always said that even if our shots aren’t falling, or we’re turning it over, as long as we stick together we’ll be fine,” McCartney said. “There’s no one who can beat us if we all just stick together.”
Heritage (24-2) will play for the Division 1 championship against Southfield Arts & Technology at 12:15 p.m. Saturday at Van Noord Arena. The Hawks defeated Southfield A&T by two points in early December, and Southfield A&T hasn't lost again.
Strickland-Gills, one of the stars of last year’s Finals weekend at Calvin College, started quickly in her return Thursday, scoring 11 of her team-high 15 points during the first quarter as Heritage jumped out to a 16-8 lead.
Joiner hit stride during the third quarter with six points and three assists as the Hawks carried a 40-37 edge into the fourth. She also had six points over the final five minutes of the game, starting with a 3-pointer at 4:52 that briefly gave Heritage back a three-point lead.
Terry did her best to match, tying things back up with a 3-pointer at 3:58 and sinking another with six seconds to play.
But of those 21 Heritage turnovers, only three came after Wayne took its fourth-quarter lead. The Hawks also outrebounded the Zebras 9-4 during that final stretch.
“Due to our experience, we were like, ‘We have to value our possessions, we have to execute, we have to do what needs to be done’ – which was keep the ball in our hands and withstand the pressure,” Strickland-Gills said. “And we did that. Down the stretch we put in buckets that needed to be put in, and we took care of the ball and didn’t turn it over. We hit free throws we were supposed to, and that really secured the game for us.”
“This game, you’re playing against a very experienced team. If you don’t … capitalize when you have your chance, it’s going to be a long night for you,” Wayne coach Jarvis Mitchell concurred. “That’s a championship-caliber team. They answered the call.”
Freshman guard Lauren Gunn had four of her nine points and an assist as well during the closing stretch. Joiner – a Miss Basketball Award finalist this winter – finished the game with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. McCartney added 10 points and three steals, and Strickland-Gills also grabbed 12 rebounds despite being limited a bit with foul trouble.
“We’ve been talking about that for four years with Mo, and the versatility and the fact that she plays every position on the floor,” Heritage coach Vonnie DeLong said. “She guards the best player, she rebounds, she gets assists. I did not realize she had a triple double, and that’s what’s neat about it – it’s so quiet. She’s not flashy, but she’s extremely good and very talented and has such a high basketball IQ, it enables her to do everything she does.”
Terry connected on five 3-pointers on the way to her game-high scoring total and had five rebounds, three assists and six steals. Senior forward Jayah Hicks added 14 points and seven rebounds, and sophomore forward Alanna Micheaux grabbed eight rebounds.
The Zebras started off cold, making just 3 of 17 shots in the first quarter – but improved their shooting percentage every quarter after that to get back on the verge of the Final.
The Semifinal appearance was the second straight for Wayne, which finished 24-3 after going winless only five seasons ago in Mitchell’s first running the program.
“I thought we were really close this year,” Mitchell said of taking another step as a championship contender. “The thing is, is basketball, you can’t control it. You can’t control sometimes the ball falling in. All you can control is how hard you play. And that’s always been my goal in talking to the kids and telling them, ‘I’m just proud of how hard you’re playing.’ Some shots are going to go in, turnovers are going to happen, but the most important thing is we play to get better – whether it’s the state championship or the first game of the year.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Heritage’s Keyonie Champion gets up a shot during Friday’s first Division 1 Semifinal at Van Noord Arena. (Middle) The Hawks’ Shine Strickland-Gills (32) and teammates defend the post.
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.)