By Greg Gielczyk
SHELBY–Rick Zoulek did more than just win his 500th game as the Shelby boys basketball coach.
He reached a milestone that might never be touched. At least, not in our lifetime.
In coaching both the boys and girls teams together for 11 years, before the girls sport was moved to the winter, Zoulek amassed more than 200 wins and now sits at an all-time mark of 715-374 as a head coach.
Zoulek, whose daughter Sarah Wolting coaches the girls team, doesn’t plan on stepping down any time soon, so that mark may be put out of reach.
He’s directed the boys program for 37 years, won 23 district championships, 19 West Michigan Conference titles and four regional crowns between the boys and girls teams.
“It just means really that I’ve been here a long time,” the 64-year old Zoulek said in his typical self-effacing style that has endeared him to his players and coaching colleagues. “And I’ve had a lot of good kids to play for me.”
But some might have openly questioned if Zoulek was the right person for the job after the Tigers failed to win a game in his first season on the bench. The school stayed with him and that has paid dividends over and over.
Community support has been key as well.
“I get such great support from the parents,” said Zoulek, who retired from teaching 5 years ago. “It’s amazing and that’s what I tell them at our Parents’ Night. We have a good program here at Shelby and it’s a testament to the parents that we’ve had in our community. They’ve been very supportive with their sons, the school and myself.
“I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Zoulek started coaching at Shelby the year present Mason County Central head coach Tim Genson graduated and now they are coaching against one another in the West Michigan Conference.
Genson lauded Zoulek for checking the boxes outside of the coaching sphere, emphasizing that he’s a “people person” concerned about more than winning basketball games.
“Rick has always been a class act,” Genson said. “Regardless of the skill or talent level (of his players), he can put a competitive team on the floor.
“He always has them well prepared,” Genson said. “He’s more than coach, as far as an X’s and O’s coach. I think he’s a life coach for many kids. I think he maintains incredible connections with his former players over the years. I think that speaks to him being more than just a basketball coach. He’s a really, really good man and has been a really good man for the Shelby community for a lot of years.
“He’s a favorite son of the Shelby community.”
Other coaches have echoed those same sentiments toward Zoulek.
North Muskegon head coach Chuck Rypstra actually played on a Fruitport team that defeated Zoulek’s first Shelby squad, and ironically, it was the Trojans’ only win that year.
Rypstra went off to college and got a job in a different town. But he’s coached against Zoulek the last 9 years in the conference.
“He always does things the correct way,” said Rypstra, who’s been coaching junior varsity and varsity for 23 years. “His teams always run great stuff.
“You just can’t say enough about him,” Rypstra said. “He’s just been a really great coach. I’ve prided myself on trying to emulate him and compete against him. If I’m close to what he is, that would be a great honor.
“I’ve had my fair share lately of getting some wins against him, but there was a long stretch where North Muskegon wasn’t able to get any wins against Shelby, they were just too good.”
Nate Aardema coached at Whitehall for 12 years before moving on to Reeths-Puffer. His Viking teams had some great games against the Tigers.
“Rick does everything right,” Aardema said. “His teams don’t beat themselves. Like we told our teams, ‘You have go in and beat Shelby because they’re not going to make mistakes to lose.’
“It’s just a sign of a really well-coached team,” he said. “Rick’s kind of a lifer. When I first saw him, he was coaching both the boys and the girls at Shelby. Just basketball all year round.
“The last few years, he’s been coaching travel teams,” Aardema said. “He’s just a great basketball guy. It was always fun. We knew that they were going to be well prepared and we knew more often than not what they were going to try to do and they just executed it really well all the time.”
Aardema added that Zoulek’s teams always played above the level you would expect them to.
“He gets the most out of every team, which is a pretty phenomenal thing as a coach,” Aardema added. “When I beat him, it was because my players were better. That’s our whole focus, to become better individuals, become better players and become better teammates. Hence, that will cause you to become a better team.”
And every year, Zoulek brings out a team that is well prepared even though there may be a big turnover of the roster.
“It’s so much fun because it’s different every year, whether you have a few kids coming back or you have a lot of (returners). The team dymamic is always different,” Aardema said. “As a coach, you’ve got to try to figure that out. It’s a tough position, but it’s also rewarding.”
Zoulek said the key is trust … the coach trusting his players and the players trusting the coach.
It’s been successful at Shelby for nearly 40 years with no end in sight.