When Al DeMott took the Sandusky girls basketball coaching job in 1979, he wasn’t planning on it being a long-term gig.
A few losing seasons motivated him to turn the program around, however – and nearly 40 years later he’s not only succeeded in doing so, he’s become one of the most successful coaches in state history.
DeMott hit the 700-win mark on Dec. 5, joining Detroit Country Day’s Frank Orlando as the only girls basketball coaches in Michigan to reach the milestone.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I know I’ve been blessed,” DeMott said. “I’ve had a lot of good kids and parents and assistant coaches who have been part of it. I’ve been blessed with great kids that work hard, and want to work hard.”
DeMott is 703-187 in his time at Sandusky, with 19 league titles, 25 District titles, seven Regional titles and one MHSAA Finals runner-up finish (1999). He’s also had the joy of coaching his three daughters, Marissa, Allison and Desiree.
“They have all actually helped me in my program,” he said of his daughters. “It’s been a lot of fun. I planned on getting out a few years ago, but I’m still having a lot of fun. I’ve got kids that are so fun to work with, and it’s hard to walk away from that. Thank God my wife has always been supporting me, too.”
It did take about five years for him to get things moving in that positive direction, though.
“We got a piece of the league title for the first time in 1984, then in 1985 we upset Flint Academy in the Regional,” he said. “That really sparked these younger kids, and we had pretty good success ever since.”
Starting a youth program in the early 1980s was a key cog in the turnaround, but also a sign of Sandusky and DeMott adjusting to the changing climate of girls basketball at the time.
“When I started, the level of play compared to what it is now is night and day,” he said. “Girls basketball has come a long way. Nobody did anything in the summer, but now they’re as active as the boys, or more active.”
As the game has changed, DeMott has, too. He’s won games with teams that lit it up from outside, he’s won games with teams that pounded the ball down low, and most recently, he’s won games with suffocating defense.
“Year by year it can change,” he said. “Depending on the personnel.”
What doesn’t change is DeMott’s commitment to the game and his team.
“There are so many secrets to his success,” Sandusky senior Haley Nelson said. “But he prepares us so well. He does his research. We know the other team’s plays just as well as they know them sometimes. He’s always scouting and he watches so much tape.”
Nelson is a four-year player for DeMott, and recently committed to continue her career at Saginaw Valley State University. She said playing for DeMott is something players in Sandusky look forward to from a young age.
“Coach DeMott is known by everyone in Sandusky,” she said. “If you say, ‘Al DeMott,’ everyone knows who he is. If you go other places, everyone knows who Al DeMott is. He’s very well respected.”
It’s partly because DeMott has coached so many members of the community, including those who eventually watched their daughters play for their former coach.
“I personally think it’s pretty awesome,” said Nelson – whose mother didn’t play for DeMott, but her older sister Keegan did. “If you could talk to your mom about your coach and it would be the exact same coach, that would be pretty awesome.”
Although, Nelson said, she’s heard he’s not exactly the same as he was back in the day.
“I hear back in the day he was a screamer,” Nelson said. “Clearly, he’s not like that anymore. He’s the calmest coach in America.”
This season’s Sandusky team is 7-1, and DeMott thinks it has potential to finish strong, despite a recent injury to a key player.
No matter how the rest of the winter goes, however, this year’s team will always be able to look back on the 53-26 win against Unionville-Sebewaing that put its coach into elite company.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Nelson said. “I felt like we just needed to do it for him, because he’s done so much for us.”
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.
PHOTO: Sandusky girls basketball coach Al DeMott stands with his team as they celebrate his 700th career win last month. (Photo courtesy of the Sandusky 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.)