St Francis Stands Tall in Run to 1st Final

March 17, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

EAST LANSING – Regardless of the winner, a team from Thursday’s first Class C Semifinal was going to finish this weekend playing in an MHSAA championship game for the first time. 

And Traverse City St. Francis – especially 6-foot-4 junior Juliana Phillips – was able to reach a little higher for that opportunity during the opener at the Breslin Center.

The Gladiators will play on the season’s final day for the first time thanks to a 53-40 win over Niles Brandywine, which was making its first Semifinal appearance since 2010 and also was seeking its first title game berth.

Phillips stood six inches taller than anyone on Brandywine’s roster, and it showed in her 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots – as did her athleticism, which helped her to four steals and allowed her to alter a number of other shots she didn’t reach.

“Both of our teams were struggling a little bit from the outside, so we just played into our strengths,” Phillips said. “They didn’t have a lot of height on their team, so we tried to play a little high-low and in-and-out, and it just started going for us.”

A lot has gone well this season for the No. 3 Gladiators (26-1), who have won 24 straight and will next face top-ranked Ypsilanti Arbor Prep at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Phillips has been St. Francis’ second-leading scorer at 12 points per game, but took on more of the offense Thursday as leading scorer Annie Lyman played through an illness and only a week after spraining both ankles, one each in successive games.

Despite struggles shooting from outside, Lyman still finished with seven points and six rebounds. Phillips scored her first points two minutes into the game and put up nine during the first half as the Gladiators took a 22-18 lead into the break. She made 7 of 12 attempts for the game.

Phillips’ impact was equally significant on the defensive end. Brandywine made only 32 percent of its shots during the first half and 26 percent for the game – partly because the Bobcats didn’t convert as usual on 3-point shots, but also because Phillips made for an obstacle if they tried to get to the basket.

“She’s obviously a tremendous shot-blocker, and after you get a couple (blocks) that does get into your mind,” St. Francis coach Keith Haske said. “I’m guessing they haven’t seen a 6-4 girl that’s athletic like she is, all year, so it’s tough. And she does such a great job of blocking without fouling; that’s just a great gift that she has. 

Brandywine this season made 212 3-pointers – third-most in one season in MHSAA history. But they connected on only 3 of 21 tries in the Semifinal, and even three or four more makes could’ve shifted the game dramatically.

Senior forward Makenna Hartline did make eight of her 17 shots from the floor to lead Brandywine (24-3) with 17 points, and she also grabbed eight rebounds. Senior guard Emily Erwin added 11 points.

“We knew we’d have to shoot the 3 today. When (they) have a 6-4 and 6-1 post player with that kind of size, and with our size, you have to be able to knock them down from the perimeter,” Brandywine coach Josh Hood said. “I think the effort was there. We had more offensive rebounds, more shot attempts; we did a lot of little things we had to do to win the game. (But) we need to shoot the basketball better. We were right there going into the fourth; it just didn’t work out.”

Sophomore Sarah Chouinard added 13 points and seven rebounds for St. Francis, and 6-1 senior center Lauren McDonnell had 10 points and 11 rebounds. The Gladiators led by six heading into the final period before breaking away on a final 16-9 run.

Haske has won 643 games and brought seven teams to Breslin over 32 seasons as a coach, and his Charlevoix girls finished Class C runner-up in 2004 and were one of five teams he’s taken to an MHSAA championship game.

Already the St. Francis boys coach, Haske added the girls varsity this winter and had a feeling early on he might be with them for a long run.

“This kinda fits our year. We won a state championship in cross country, the boys were semifinalists in football, and if you look at our sports right now we’ve got great athletes,” Haske said. “I told the kids at the first assembly this year that this was the year of St. Francis, just because of the collection of people we have. And I think this just goes to that. For whatever reason, this seems to be our year.

“We put a banner up in the gym if you make it to a state final game, so they were excited about that. They’ll live up on our ceiling of our gym forever, which is pretty cool.”

Brandywine will graduate a memorable seven-player senior class that has been part of a 91-7 run over the last four seasons.  

“That says enough, 91 wins. Pretty special,” Hood said. “We’ve been (here) seven years, and I think we’re at 162 wins. So we have a lot of girls coming, but yeah, we lose a lot.

“When you look at our program, we’ve got a lot of kids that take pride in what we do. And we’ll be back.”

Click for the full box score.

The Girls Basketball Finals are presented by Sparrow Health System.

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Francis’ Juliana Phillips celebrates Thursday’s Class C Semifinal win. (Middle) Brandywine's Emily Erwin shoots a free throw; she finished with 11 points.

Howardsville Christian Striving to Transfer Fall Successes to Basketball Court

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

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.)