By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
Chris Hodos is up for a challenge. In fact, he and his Pittsford girls basketball have been preparing for it for weeks.
The Wildcats on Thursday completed their fourth consecutive 20-0 regular season. Overall, they have won 75 consecutive games, just three shy of the MHSAA record in girls basketball.
If they are going to break the state consecutive wins record and take a third consecutive MHSAA championship trophy home to Hillsdale County next month, they are going to have to do it a rung higher on Michigan’s girls basketball ladder. The Wildcats are Class C this year after claiming Class D titles the last two seasons.
Hodos knows the road will be tougher.
“I expected to go 20-0,” he said. “We lost two all-staters, and people saw that and figured there was no way we’d go 20-0 again. But, I knew what we had coming back.”
Chief among those returning Wildcats is 5-foot-7 senior guard Marissa Shaw, the team’s leading scorer at 13.6 points per game – and something of a thief. The Jackson College signee has nearly 400 steals in her career.
“She set our school record with 15 steals in a game this year,” Hodos said. “She’s had two triple-doubles with points, steals and assists. She’s been in double figures in assists four times. She’s a real aggressive player.”
Shaw has been on the varsity since her freshman year, playing three minutes in the 2015 Class D Final loss to St. Ignace. That was the last time Pittsford lost a game. All five starters this year have played in multiple MHSAA championship games.
It’s likely no team in the state can match that type of big-game experience.
“All five of my starters have been on the team for three years,” Hodos said. “They’ve been to the Breslin Center through all of this. They know about what it takes to get there and what it’s like to play there. They all have experience. That’s something you can’t teach.”
The deep tournament runs have meant several more weeks of practice than a typical high schooler will play. Pittsford’s played 15 postseason games over the past two seasons alone.
That big-game experience probably played a hand in one of Pittsford’s biggest regular-season wins this year – a 68-56 win over Tri-County Conference champion Morenci. The Class D Bulldogs – who feature a pair of 1,000-point scorers in Mady Schmitz and Daelyn Merillat – were up 10 at halftime. Hodos made a defensive adjustment. and the comeback was on. Pittsford forged a tie at 44-44 going into the fourth quarter and outscored Morenci by 12 during the final eight minutes.
“They are so disciplined,” Morenci coach Larry Bruce said. “They are never out of position on defense. I watched the tape on them four or five times. The girls are never out of position. They made a really good adjustment at halftime, and their depth got to us. They are solid.”
Pittsford won the Southern Central Athletic Association East by six games, going 17-0 in league play. But, that’s all over now. It’s time for the MHSAA tournament. The last time Pittsford played in Class C was 2014-15 when it was erased in the District Final by Adrian Madison.
This year’s Class C tournament starts Monday for Pittsford when it goes on the road to play Clinton, the District host.
As the saying goes, the 101-1 record over the past 102 games is thrown out the window when the tournament starts.
“We’ll run into some good teams,” Hodos said. “I have probably four or five potential teams that we could play on film. I like breaking down film and staying up all night.”
If any potential opponents are staying up all night watching Pittsford on film, they’ll notice something very familiar about the Wildcats’ offense. It’s the same one Hodos has used for at least a decade.
“I run a Bill Self offense, a high-low game,” he said, referring to the Kansas men’s basketball coach. “I’ve ran that since I was a JV coach, and it’s worked. We run it every year. People say you have to change things up or run something different, but, why, if its works?
"We get all kinds of different looks out of it, but that’s what it starts with. The girls know where to be. The repetition helps us. You see a lot of times where basketball players make bad passes. Often, it’s because they don’t know where someone is going to. They get lost in the play. We run the same thing. The girls know where each other will be.”
Besides Shaw, the other seniors for Pittsford are Hannah Patterson and Sydni Brunette, a 3-point sharpshooter. Junior Kennedy Chesney is a 53-percent field goal shooter averaging nearly eight points a game. Junior Alison Toner averages just under double figures. Hodos has three sophomores on the varsity, too.
“We do it more by committee this season,” he said. “We have a lot of girls contributing. That’s how I knew we’d be pretty good.”
Bruce, who’s coached off-and-on for 50 years, was impressed with what he saw in Pittsford last year and this season.
“They won’t embarrass themselves, I’m sure of that,” Bruce said. “People will have trouble with them. Shaw is really good, but after that there is no drop off for the next seven or eight girls. They all play well.”
Hodos is a Pittsford graduate who played football at Adrian College and returned to Hillsdale County to teach and coach. He currently works with students at the Hillsdale County Youth Home. He sometimes leans on his old college coach or other friends in the business for advice or just to talk about coaching. He’s been an assistant coach for more than 15 years with the Pittsford football team, running the defense.
“I try to get my knowledge from everywhere,” he said.
The record consecutive victory streak for boys basketball in Michigan ended this season when Powers North Central – winners of 84 straight – lost in December to Rapid River. The Jets’ is the longest streak in Michigan prep basketball history.
By beating Camden-Frontier on Thursday, Pittsford became tied with Flint Northern for second place on the all-time girls consecutive victory list with 75 straight wins. To tie Carney-Nadeau’s record of 78 straight, Pittsford will have to win the District. To break the record, they’ll have to win a Regional game.
That’s a long way off, but Hodos isn’t worried about it. He’s embracing it.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “It’s something different. I’m excited about it. I like scheduling different teams every year. A couple of years ago we played a couple of Class A schools that I found that would play us. It’s exciting.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pittsford’s Marissa Shaw brings the ball upcourt during last season’s Class D Semifinal win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Wildcats coach Chris Hodos talks things over with his team during the championship game victory against Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary.
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.)