By Steve Gunn
SHELBY – The players on the Shelby boys basketball team weren’t even close to being born when Rick Zoulek started coaching the varsity 30 years ago.
But their performance this season has been a great anniversary gift for their coach.
The Tigers, who were expected by some to rebuild this season with mostly new starters, cruised through the West Michigan Conference schedule undefeated, then captured postseason district and regional titles.
The highlight thus far came last Wednesday, when Shelby beat Laingsburg 46-33 in the Class C regional finals. It was Shelby’s fourth straight trip to the regional final round, but its first victory in its last three tries.
Now the Tigers (23-1) are ready for their next challenge Tuesday when they meet Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (19-5) in the Class C state quarterfinals at 7 p.m. at Zeeland East High School.
The winner will advance to Thursday’s state semifinals at Michigan State University against the winner of the McBain-Boyne City quarterfinal. The state title game is Saturday.
“It’s been good every year, but it’s been very nice this year, too,” said Zoulek, whose team last advanced to the state semifinals in 2012 before losing to Traverse City St. Francis. “This group has done a great job of working together and putting together a very successful season.”
The amazing part is that the Tigers have strung together a one-loss season with a so-so offense and stifling defense.
That defense was on display last week against Laingsburg. Each team only managed one basket in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers had a spate of turnovers that would have doomed most teams.
But Shelby’s tough zone defense held the Wolfpack to 1-for-22 shooting in the fourth quarter (9-for-55 in the game) to preserve the win.
The Tigers won despite the fact that one of their two double-figure scorers, Caleb Anderson, was in foul trouble and only scored two points in the contest.
Danny Beckman and Jeffrey Beckman led Shelby in the game with 15 and 14 points, respectively.
“These kids have strung together just enough offense to keep going,” Zoulek said. “They know if they work hard and play great team defense they can be in any game.
“I don’t know that there’s any secret to it. It’s just a matter of each of them containing their player and buying into the concept of helping each other. They know it takes a good team to play good defense.”
The Tigers nearly produced the second perfect regular season of Zoulek’s long career. Only a three-point loss to a strong Muskegon Heights team in the last game of the regular season spoiled that accomplishment.
Zoulek thinks the Muskegon Heights loss helped inspire his team to its tournament run, but not necessarily because it was a loss.
“It was a close game, that was the big thing,” said Zoulek, whose team won most of its games by comfortable margins this season. “If we could have come back and won by two points it still would have been a good learning situation for us. We learned we have to do some things better. So if there is such a thing as a good loss, I guess that was a good loss.”
It’s hard to tell which NorthPointe Christian team Shelby will face in the quarterfinals – the one that lost three of its last four regular season games, or the Mustangs who have strung together four straight victories since then.
NorthPointe certainly has players who can score, including four-year starter Preston Huckaby, who has more than 1,300 career points, and 6-6 forward Kual Nihal, whose two monster dunks in the regional finals made ESPN highlight reels.
“They are a very tall team, and they shoot the ball well and drive well,” Zoulek said about NorthPointe Christian. “They shoot 3’s very well, and I think their top five players all average in double figures. There’s not one player you can key on.
“it’s going to be a tough battle we’re looking forward to.”