By Steve Gunn
SHELBY – An undefeated high school basketball team?
Who are the superstars?
After all, high school teams don’t perform like that without a dominant All-Stater or two, do they?
But the Shelby Tigers have done exactly that.
The Tigers have a lot of very good players, but as Coach Rick Zoulek admits, there’s probably not an elite Division 1 college prospect on his roster.
And the team does not rely on experience. Shelby graduated five seniors last spring who saw a lot of court time, so this year’s squad had to do a lot from scratch.
Yet the Tigers have strung together 19 consecutive wins, and are one game away from sealing the second perfect season in Zoulek’s 30-year coaching career.
But that last game will be a challenge. Shelby hosts powerful Muskegon Heights on Tuesday, and the outcome is far from certain. Last year the two teams went four overtimes before Shelby emerged victorious.
Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, Zoulek couldn’t be more pleased with the way the current season has unfolded for his team.
“Obviously there would be some pride in going 20-0 in the regular season,” said Zoulek, who had a 20-0 season with Shelby in 1996. “It would be quite an accomplishment for these guys. But the kids understand that our goals have always been to win the conference and make a good tournament run.
“The idea is to be playing our best basketball in March. If we go 20-0 that’s great, but either way we’ll have a clean slate from there and be 0-0 when we play our first tournament game.”
So how has Shelby gotten to this point?
The old fashioned way, with hard work and a focus on playing sound fundamental basketball, according to Zoulek.
The biggest key has been the secret to Shelby’s basketball success for years – a focus on the team rather than individuals.
“These kids believe in each other and the team concept,” Zoulek said. “They understand they can’t do it themselves. They have to do it together. Even the kids on the bench understand how important they are to the team.
“Year in and year out that’s something we stress – the team. And we get great support from parents and the community. The parents don’t expect their kids to play double-digit minutes all the time. They want them to contribute and do whatever they can to help the team.”
The stats tell the story. The Tigers have three players who are having very good offensive seasons – junior post player Jeffrey Beckman (14.3 points, 9.9 rebounds), senior guard Caleb Anderson (12.8 points, 3.9 assists, 2.8 steals) and senior forward Mike James (8.6 points, 5.9 rebounds).
The rest of the offensive attack is balanced, with four players – Danny Beckman, Lane Stotler, Jimmy Hughey and Spencer Landis – all averaging four points per game.
While the Tigers rarely run anyone off the court with their offensive skills – they average 57 points per game – they have been stifling opponents with good team defense.
“I’ve really been impressed with the way these guys play defensively,” Zoulek said. “They stay at it and stay at it. It makes it hard for other teams to make runs on us. We’re not the greatest team offensively, but we work hard to compete in every game.”
The fact that the Tigers have had very few close games this year, despite having a so-so offense, is a testament to the effectiveness of the defense.
“That’s been the surprise,” Zoulek said. “We had one close game with North Muskegon – we won by three – and other than that it’s been pretty much double digits most of the time.”