By Tom Westerholm

HART – Perhaps better than any other player in the region, Caleb Bitely knows how difficult it can be to guard Parker Hovey. 

After all, Bitely spends more time guarding the Pirates’ star senior in practice than any other Hart player. Other teams have to face Hovey once or twice per season. Bitely has to face him almost daily, which is both a blessing and a curse for the junior guard.

“He’s huge, so he always knocks me down when he drives to the paint, and he’s always pushing me around,” Bitely said on Friday, describing the 6-foot-5 senior. “It helps us to both be more physical.”

Led by Hovey, Hart remained undefeated on Friday – beating North Muskegon 67-51 in a showdown between two teams at the top of the West Michigan Conference Rivers Division. Hovey once again put together an enormous stat line, tallying a triple-double with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. 

Does Bitely ever watch a team defend Hovey and think he could have done better?

“No, not at all,” Bitely said smiling. “They usually have really good defenders that can give him a lot of work. But he does a great job too.”

Hovey was quiet early on Friday, as North Muskegon surged ahead with a flurry of 3-pointers. Junior Jaxon Lisinski buried three of his six 3-pointers in the first quarter, and the Norsemen led 14-12 after one. The two teams traded blows in the second quarter, and Hart led just 28-26 going into halftime.

Photo courtesy of LSJ photographer Leo Valdez

So how did the Norsemen limit Hovey? According to North Muskegon coach Chuck Rypstra, they didn’t.

“We never slowed him down,” Rypstra said. “That’s just an incorrect statement. He didn’t score, because he was maybe letting some other things happen, or we held the ball a little longer or whatever. In the second half, he just decided he was going to do more. … He just said, ‘I’m taking it.’”

Still, Hart coach Nick Bronsema credited the Norsemen for a zone look the Pirates hadn’t seen before, and North Muskegon started the second half by evening the score at 28-28 on a jumper by junior Lamarkis Graham. 

Then Hovey took over. He sparked a 10-0 run with a pair of free throws before he assisted on three consecutive field goals – a 3-pointer and a layup by junior Blake Weirich, followed by a 3-pointer by senior Diego Escamilla. Hovey then scored a tough hanging layup, and a floater through contact for a three-point play to put the Pirates up by 12. Troy McManus and Sam Gallo scored back-to-back baskets for the Norsemen to trim the deficit, but Hovey dribbled out the clock and hit a leaning 3-pointer with seconds left on the clock to push the lead back to 12. 

“You see him hit a bank shot hanging, or he hangs, looks around, knocks in a little tear drop, those are tough plays,” Rypstra said. “Those are college. He’s a college player out there.”

Photo courtesy of LSJ photographer Leo Valdez

Bronsema said Hovey maps out games in his head beforehand, visualizing how he will attack the opposing team before he steps on the floor. In the third quarter, Hovey either scored or assisted on every Pirates basket. 

“He got that look in his eyes,” Bronsema said. “He gets ticked off a little bit, he starts talking – mostly to himself. That’s a way he’s matured mightily. He did some things, and I thought he got robbed of a few other things, never an excuse, but he just absolutely owned this game. … It’s a team sport, but the kid is phenomenal. He’s the real deal.”

The fourth quarter was physical, and North Muskegon stayed within striking distance for much of the period, but Hart’s combination of Hovey and 3-point shooting stretched the lead to 16 by the final buzzer – the same differential as the first time the Pirates and Norsemen clashed on Jan. 6. 

“We definitely knew they were going to come in here and give us their best battle, a fight, which they did,” Weirich said. “They came out firing and got an early lead a little bit, but we fought back.”

In addition to Hovey’s stat line, Weirich finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Escamilla buried three triples en route to nine points. Bitely scored six points and pulled down four rebounds. 

Lisinski led North Muskegon with 20 points. Junior Lamarkis Graham and senior Sam Gallo scored 11 points apiece, while senior Troy McManus added five. 

Hovey said the game, which grew increasingly physical toward the end, suited him well, even though he knows he isn’t likely to get calls due to his stature.

“I really try to play hard and aggressive and get to the rim,” Hovey said with a smile. “You do all the work to get by two guards and the big guy, and you go in for the finish and you get hammered, and you’re like, ‘I just spent all this energy to miss a shot at the rim.’”

Both Hovey and Weirich credited the coaching staff for keeping the team grounded as they remain undefeated.

“We won tonight, but it’s over,” Hovey said. “We’re not going to think about what we did right, what we did wrong, we’re going to work on it in practice obviously, but we’re looking next week at Newaygo. We’re not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves.”

Hart improved to 18-0 and 9-0 in the conference. North Muskegon fell to 15-4 overall and 8-3 in the conference.

Photo courtesy of LSJ photographer Leo Valdez