By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Last year, the Oakridge Eagle boys basketball team got the better of West Michigan Conference rival Shelby in both their meetings.
This year, consider that score at least partially settled.
The visiting Shelby Tigers (9-0) wasted little time Thursday night exerting their considerable muscle, running out to a 35-17 first-half lead en route to the 58-37 victory over the upstart Oakridge Eagles.
Whatever mojo the Eagles (4-4) might have had coming into contest from last year’s wins was wiped away behind a full-court Shelby press, and its almost impenetrable half-court defense, that upset the Oakridge player’s flow, resulting in most of the Eagles’ 12 first-half turnovers.
“I like us to play aggressive, so I think (opening with a full-court press) got our defense going a little bit,” said Shelby head coach Rick Zoulek. “It’s not so much that it caused turnovers or anything, but it made (Oakridge) look for different things. And then all of a sudden our half court defense was effective.”
But it was his team’s play on both ends of the floor that really got Coach Zoulek really excited.
“The defense is really ratcheting down,” said Zoulek, “and tonight it was good to see the offense kick in a little bit. We weren’t just playing hard. We were playing smart.”
With things tied 5-all after five minutes had elapsed in the game, Shelby finished the first on a 12-4 run to take an eight-point edge into the second. Once there, the Tigers opened the frame with another 12-4 run that essentially put away the contest.
Oakridge head coach Tracy Ruel said that his team just didn’t get it done against an aggressive, opportunistic Tiger attack.
“Some of these kids have never played in a game like this,” said Ruel, his Eagles finishing with 18 turnovers overall. “They’ve played them in football, but not basketball.”
The Tigers looked like they were finally hitting on all cylinders, both offensively and defensively, and their passing game looked as good as it has all season.
“This is the best we’ve moved the ball, taken care of the ball, all year,” said Zoulek, whose squad finished with 22 total assists, while turning over the ball just four times before the benches cleared in the fourth quarter. “We’ve been harping on that big-time in practice because we’ve been averaging about 15 turnovers (per game). And it hasn’t been because teams have been pressing us.”
“Tonight was much better,” Zoulek continued. “I thought we made good choices on our shots, we made good choices when they shot.”
Shelby 23-20 advantage in scoring in the second half, although the Eagles did try to mount a fourth quarter charge, in the form of a 9-5 run before Oakridge’s senior point guard, Dom Greenawalt, suffered a painful looking strained ankle with 4:53 left in the game.
Greenawalt returned from the locker room in the contest’s waning minutes with a big bag of ice strapped to his ankle. Coach Ruel said that, while his guard’s ankle injury might not amount to much now, a three-games-in-six-days stretch awaits the team.
For Shelby, the team will keep looking to improve despite the perfect record. But Coach Zoulek is no fool; he’s been here before.
“We’re in a good spot,” said Zoulek. “We’ve got a long ways to go, but I think we can play. I like the way we’ve progressed now (emphasis his).”
Andrew Beckman had 12 points, as did junior Michael James, with Beckman adding eight rebounds and James adding six boards in the win. Senior guard Jason Beckman finished with 11 points and nine assists.
Junior Spencer Landis added nine points in the win.
Oakridge senior forward Austin Wright led all scorers with 13 points, while Greenawalt added nine points before going out with the ankle injury. Kaleb Cook had six boards and five points for the Eagles.