Riley Fairfield, Norse hope to repeat Cinderella role in this week’s districts

By Nate Thompson

NORTH MUSKEGON — For any small school starting postseason play, a fitting form of motivation could be watching the movie “Hoosiers,” the ultimate underdog story of tiny Milan High capturing the Indiana boys basketball state championship  in 1954.LSJ Logo incert

The moral of that story? The postseason is a new season, presenting another chance for teams from schools big and small to create their own magic, much like Jimmy Chitwood and company did at Milan.

The North Muskegon boys basketball team created its own underdog story last year when it upset traditional power Muskegon Heights in the Class C district championship game at Kent City High School.

North Muskegon senior Riley Fairfield goes for the block against Western Michigan Christian guard Nate Dugener earlier this season. Photo/Tim Reilly

Fairfield goes for the block against Western Michigan Christian guard Nate Dugener earlier this season. Photo/Tim Reilly

Riley Fairfield, just a sophomore at the time, played a major role, scoring 18 points, including two key free throws and a three-point play with about a minute left in the game.

This season Fairfield has developed into one of the premier players in the area, but his team again enters the postseason as an underdog, even with a very good 14-6 record.

The Norse will have to upset Muskegon Heights again, in the first round of districts on Monday, if they want to keep their district trophy.

Muskegon Heights, 16-4, beat the Norse by 18 points in January.

“We want to play with a chip on our shoulders,” said Fairfield, a 6-4 player who with a deadly outside shot. “I don’t think it’s right to count us out, because you never know how any team is going to show up. Because now, it’s win or go home.”

Muskegon Heights will have to find a way to neutralize Fairfield, who’s averaging 18.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game for the Norse.

North Muskegon Coach Chuck Rypstra said Fairfield has developed in terms of skill and leadership during his junior season.

“I’d say this year, this has been his team,” Rypstra said. “Last year, as a sophomore, he was trying to fit in and find his role. But he put in a lot of hard work in the offseason and it shows. His point totals have jumped and he’s really gotten after it.”

Fairfield said he’s always been the tallest player in his class, so he was utilized in the post during his middle school playing days. But since then he’s worked hard to become an inside-outside threat.

“I still kept practicing on my outside shot, because I knew I wanted to be a versatile player when I got older,” Fairfield said. “Then as a freshman, I had Coach Rypstra as my coach (on the junior varsity team) and he’d have me practice out on the wing. That’s helped me because I have that height advantage (over other guards) but I can still handle the ball and have those other skills.”

“He’s definitely a dual-threat player,” Rypstra added. “He’s always been a solid outside shooter, but now he’ll dip that shoulder and take it strong. He’s added that dimension to his game.”

Riley Fairfield goes up for North Muskegon against Whitehall. Photo/Tim Reilly

Fairfield goes up for a bucket against Whitehall. Photo/Tim Reilly

Fairfield said his team is at its best when the Norsemen are sharing the ball and getting balanced scoring. The Norsemen’s big three are Fairfield, fellow junior Veronell Smith, and senior guard Erick Bleakley.

“Then we got our freshman, T.J. McKenzie, who’s capable of scoring 6-10 points a game, too,” Fairfield said. “And we’ve got a bunch of other kids that can come off the bench and do well while they’re on the court. There’s no drop off. And that helps keeping the starters fresh.”

To prepare for Muskegon Heights, Fairfield said they’ve been working on breaking the Tigers’ full-court pressure by going up against 6 or 7 teammates on the floor at the same time, which helps emulate the Tigers’ speed in disrupting the passing lanes.

Offensively, Rypstra said he doesn’t want to get into a full-blown track meet against the Tigers, but the Norse definitely won’t play stall ball, either. The key, he said, is having the Norsemen crash the boards effectively, which will help control the tempo and limit the Tigers’ fast break opportunities.

“We wouldn’t be doing our program any justice by not taking advantage of some fast-break chances,” Rypstra said. “But I think a key is not settling for the first shot. We’d like to work it around to get a better shot.”

Fairfield, whose older brother Justin will be a junior offensive lineman at Hope College this fall, hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a college athlete. Although he also plays football and runs track, Fairfield’s future will remain on the hardwood.

“When I was younger, I was just drawn to the game. It just felt good hitting shots,” he said. “I’d practice in my driveway for hours and just worked on developing my game. And my parents have always encouraged me to get better, because they know I could possibly play in college.”

Fairfield has opened some college coaches’ eyes while playing on the AAU circuit with Muskegon-based ACB Bank Hoops.

“It’s been a really good experience,” Fairfield said. “We’ve got guys from Muskegon, Grand Rapids, even a kid from Jackson. It’s been fun playing with some of the best of the best.”

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