By Tom Kendra
Special to Second Half
EAST LANSING - Dittmer was the difference.
Grand Rapids South Christian came into Saturday's MHSAA Class B championship game ranked No. 1 and with a 26-game winning streak. But the Sailors had never faced an inside force like 6-foot-1 senior post player Allie Dittmer of Eaton Rapids.
"We tried our best to stop her," said South Christian coach Jim De Bruyn, "but she was just a horse in there."
Dittmer dominated the interior, scoring 26 points on 9 of 15 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds to lead unheralded Eaton Rapids to its first-ever MHSAA girls basketball title in a convincing 51-38 upset of South Christian in Saturday's finale at the Breslin Center.
The Greyhounds (23-5) came into the MHSAA tournament as an honorable mention in the final Associated Press regular-season poll, but relied on five senior starters to knock off No. 6 Ypsilanti Arbor Prep in the Quarterfinals, No. 8 Flint Powers in Friday's Semifinal and then top-ranked South Christian in Saturday's Final.
"I told the girls before the game that we don't need to be perfect, we just need to be us," said 15th-year Eaton Rapids coach Willis Whitmyer. "I'm not the smartest guy here, but I'm smart enough to know when I have a good inside player. Everyone on this team has heard it 1,000 times from me: 'Get the ball inside to Allie.'"
Dittmer, who will play next year at Hillsdale College, scored two points in the first quarter as both teams struggled out of the gate. The quarter ended in a 7-7 tie.
But Dittmer came alive with nine points in the second quarter as the Greyhounds inched ahead to a 19-16 halftime lead, and it appeared that the second half would be a down-to-the-wire fight.
However, buoyed by a raucous, maroon-clad crowd chanting "We are, E.R.!," Eaton Rapids used its zone defense to stymie the Sailors' comeback attempt.
While the defense was doing its part, Dittmer got back to work on the block, scoring five points in the third quarter and then tallying 10 in the fourth (despite picking up her fourth foul with 4:35 remaining and having to sit for stretches) as the Greyhounds pulled away.
"I’ve got to give credit to my teammates; they worked it around and made it easy on me," said Dittmer, who garnered honorable mention status on the Associated Press Class B all-state team announced this week. "This win means so much to all of us.”
As Dittmer began to demand more and more attention from the Sailors, it began to open up shooting opportunities and driving lanes for the Eaton Rapids guards.
The Greyhounds were 18 of 26 from the free-throw line, compared to just 3 of 6 for South Christian. Senior guard Kathryn Mills was the only other Eaton Rapids player in double figures scoring with 11 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer right in front of her school's delirious student section with 1:35 remaining that gave the Greyhounds an insurmountable 48-37 lead.
"It was about time, was the way I looked at it," said Mills, one of those five senior starters. "I had a rough start, but that's the way a lot of our games went this year. We got more open looks at the end because the other team is focused on stopping Allie."
South Christian 5-11 senior Renee Broekhuizen, who battled Dittmer inside all night, was the lone Sailors player in double figures, with 13 points. Broekhuizen buried back-to-back 3-pointers to pull her team to within 37-33 with 5:15 remaining in the game, but the Sailors were outscored 14-5 the rest of the way.
Dittmer scored four points during the final run, and senior guard Meghan Dassance scored five of her six during that stretch.
"She's a great player, and she has a strong body," Broekhuizen said of Dittmer. "We never gave up, we were relentless and we refused to lose. But it just wasn't our night."
South Christian (26-1) lost for the first time since last year's Semifinals at the Breslin. It was the Sailors' third appearance in a girls basketball title game, as they won the 1988 Class B championship and finished as the 1980 Class C runners-up.
Cassidy Vredevoogd blocked five shots and added six points and five rebounds for South Christian. Morgan Torres had a team-high six rebounds, and Broekhuizen added three steals.
"It's not what we planned on, but here we are," said De Bruyn, who has won 441 games in 25 years as South Christian's coach. "We struggled against their zone and couldn't seem to get many good, open shots."
The Sailors connected on just 15 of 46 shots (32.6 percent), were not able to get to the free-throw line much and were out rebounded 34-24.
Five points from Emily Reinecke and six rebounds and five assists from Bailey Baker also boosted Eaton Rapids, which placed second in the Capital Area Activities Conference Gold.
But Whitmyer felt another force during Saturday's game, especially in the second half, which he felt made a big difference in turning things in his team's favor.
"I thought our fans were unbelievable," said Whitmyer, whose team won all eight of its tournament games by at least 10 points. "I looked out there, and I thought we owned the Breslin. Our support system throughout the school and the community was really something else, and that makes this even more special."
PHOTOS: (Top) Eaton Rapids' Meghan Dassance works to get past South Christian's Renee Broekhuizen in the Class B Final. (Middle) Greyhounds guard Kathryn Mills launches a shot in front of her team's bench Saturday.
HIGHLIGHTS: (1) Allie Dittmer led all scorers with 26 points and all rebounders with 13. Here she scores on a putback just before halftime to give Eaton Rapids a 19-16 lead. (2) Renee Broekhuizen led South Christian in scoring with 13. Here's a 3-pointer she hit early in the game.
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.)