By Mitch Ashcraft

NORTH MUSKEGON – The North Muskegon boys basketball team had high expectations coming into the season, after going 14-7 last year and returning standout Riley Fairfield and several other key players.

But the Norsemen have been playing .500 ball so far, and have struggled to keep pace in the West Michigan Conference race.

Veronell Smith wins the jump ball for North Muskegon. Photo/Leo Valdez

None of that mattered on Thursday, however, when North Muskegon claimed a solid 46-34 conference victory over Oakridge.

If the Norse keep playing that way the rest of the season, Coach Chuck Rypstra thinks they will be just fine.

“That was a perfect game, that was us,” said Rypstra, whose team improved to 6-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play. “When we have held a team under 50 points, we have won. When a team gets over 50 points, we have lost.

“We just don’t score many points, but we are a pretty good defensive team. It’s going to take a little over 50 points to win some of these games down the stretch, but the way we played tonight, that’s what we’re all about. We can be pretty good when we play like that.”

Oakridge has had its own challenges this season.

The Eagles returned three starters from last year’s 16-6 team, and seemed headed for another successful season.

But injuries from the football season have derailed the Eagles throughout the first half of the campaign.

Last year’s leading scorer, Brady Luttrull (17.5 points per game), came back from a leg injury two weeks ago and played in three games, but was out of the lineup against North Muskegon due to soreness in his other leg.

Several other key players have also been battling injuries, keeping Oakridge from contending in the West Michigan Conference.

Fletcher Chase brings the ball up the floor for Oakridge against Lequann Hooper. Photo/Leo Valdez

“We know we are out of the conference race, our goal is districts now,” said Oakridge head coach Tracy Ruel, whose team fell to 2-9 overall and 2-5 in the league. “Besides getting healthy, we need to concentrate and take care of the ball to be successful.

“We need to make the easy shots. I know we are going to miss jump shots, but when we have layups, we need to be putting those in the basket.”

North Muskegon jumped out to an 11-7 lead after the first quarter, with Dalton Fuller scoring five of his eight points for the Norse.

The teams traded buckets in the second quarter. Oakridge cut its deficit to three with one minute to play, but the Norse took a 23-17 lead into halftime, thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Fuller.

North Muskegon cruised to victory in the second half, leading 35-25 after the third quarter and extending its advantage to as many as 18 points midway through the fourth.

TJ Mackenzie finished the night with 10 points, five assists and four steals for the Norseman, while Fairfield also scored 10 points.

TJ Ruel and Alex Shoop had 10 points apiece for the Eagles.