By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
NORTH MUSKEGON – After 15 years of coaching junior varsity boys basketball at North Muskegon, Chuck Rypstra was ready to move up to varsity.
But it didn’t happen the way he expected.
Following the 2013-14 season, Rypstra decided to leave the boys program and become the girls varsity basketball coach. It was a tough decision to make after so many years of building the boys program with longtime varsity coach Jeff Cooke.
But two days after accepting the girls coaching position, the boys varsity job opened up. Rypstra immediately signaled his interest, and the school happily accepted the change in plans.
So far, the new arrangement is working very well.
The Norse started the season with a sluggish 1-4 record, which was not a pleasant welcome for a longtime JV coach who finally made the jump.
But in recent weeks, the situation has improved dramatically. The Norse have won nine of their past 10 games, including victories last week over Oakridge and Mason County Central, two good teams that beat North Muskegon earlier in the season.
The Norse will test their newfound confidence in a league game against undefeated Shelby on Thursday. Their only loss during their hot streak came against Shelby, and was only by three points.
While North Muskegon did not get hot in time to make a serious run at a West Michigan Conference title, the team is still peaking at the right time.
With the Class C state tournament right around the corner, Rypstra can picture his team making a serious bid for a district trophy and a berth in regionals.
That will be a major challenge, with strong teams like Muskegon Heights and Western Michigan Christian in the same district tournament.
“We didn’t really start putting things together until the second week of January,” Rypstra said. “We beat Whitehall in overtime, and I think that kind of propelled us and got us rolling.
“If we could play well in districts and sneak out a title, that would be great.”
A new experience
Rypstra was content coaching the JV boys team at North Muskegon.
His teams were not great in the beginning, winning a total of 18 games through his first four seasons. But starting with his fifth season, the Norse JV never finished below .500.
That’s pretty good for a small school with a limited pool of athletes.
Rypstra’s JV success probably could have earned him a boys varsity coaching job at any number of area schools. He admits he applied for several positions, but always withdrew before the final interviews.
“My kids go to North Muskegon,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of what is going on with them so I always pulled my name out and stayed at North Muskegon.”
Besides, Rypstra says he always had it pretty good at North Muskegon.
He said Cooke allowed him to run the JV team the way he wanted. That meant he could focus on having a winning team, instead of simply drilling the players in the varsity system, so they would be ready when they moved up.
Rypstra also had the best of both worlds. With a small athletic budget, North Muskegon can’t afford a lot of assistant coaches, so Rypstra did double-duty, serving as head JV coach and varsity assistant coach, season after season.
“I would go to JV practice then varsity practice all the time,” Rypstra said. “I was spending a lot of time working with basketball players in North Muskegon.”
Rypstra said he misses the days of more intense teaching at the JV level, but he’s thoroughly enjoying the varsity experience.
“I’m finding I like having guys that are further developed as players,” Rypstra said. “You can do more stuff, rather than having to drill all the time. The biggest change is just being able to let go a little bit.
“In JV you’re always coaching, always micromanaging, which is fine in a gym where there aren’t very many people. But in varsity, with 300 or 400 people in the stands yelling, the players can’t hear you half the time, anyway.”
Norse finally playing up to potential
Rypstra couldn’t have picked a better time to move up to varsity.
His last two junior varsity teams were excellent, posting records of 19-0 and 18-2, and he had the rare opportunity to follow the players to varsity.
But winning at the JV and varsity levels are two different challenges. Rypstra said he knew his current team could be good, but only when the players decided to work as a team..
“(The players) finally decided that winning games is more important than how things are going individually,” Rypstra said. “We talk about it all the time – ‘we’ instead of ‘me.’ When the guys started playing for each other, it all just started to click.”
The unselfish play of the Norse is illustrated statistically.
Eight different players have been leading scorers in different games this season. Nobody on the squad is averaging 10 points per game.
Only one player, senior forward Ben Gautraud, has hit the 20-point mark in a game.
“He’s scored 21 points once in a game and 20 in another, then there were four or five games he didn’t score at all,” Rypstra said.
Other starters who have helped carry the load are senior post player Marco Visconti, junior point guard Erick Bleakley and sophomore forward Riley Fairfield.
The fifth starter, post player James Duncan, is the team’s rebounding specialist. The Norse started getting hot when Duncan became a starter in the sixth game of the season, Rypstra said.
“He’s a hard worker on the boards,” Rypstra said of Duncan. “He’s a machine down there.”
Playing big roles off the bench are senior Mitch Edick, junior Joe Osborn and sophomore Vernonell Smith.
“The guys are really into it. They are listening. They are really playing together now,” Rypstra said.