WARREN, Mich. (DECEMBER 10, 2019) - When you've spent 25 years coaching basketball at a particular school, you probably know when you've got something special on your hands.
Make no mistake about it, De La Salle Collegiate head coach Greg Esler has a feeling about this year's Pilots basketball team.
"We had a great finish to the season last year," said the veteran coach, who has 544 career victories to his name, including 408 at De La Salle. "Our guys got better and better each week. The younger kids have gotten better and developed, so I expect big things from our team this year.
"We've got a chance to make some noise and a chance to get to the Breslin Center."
Those words aren't spoken lightly. Esler has taken four high school teams to the final four - the last of which was just two years ago. So he knows what he's talking about.
One of the key pieces for the Pilots this year is senior Josef Gjonaj, a 6-foot-4 combo guard/forward who can do it all. He led the team in scoring (12 points per game) a year ago, when he earned all-county first team, all-Catholic and honorable mention all-state honors.
"Joe is very athletic. He has a great mid-range game and can get to the basket," Esler said. "He can play the off guard or small forward positions, and he can defend, too. As other teams see him, they'll realize he's the real deal. He can create his own shot, which is big for our team."
Gjonaj is one of several key pieces back from a De La Salle team which won 13 games a year ago and captured a district championship. Nine players in all return to the varsity team - including four starters.
Gjonaj will captain this year's squad, along with fellow senior Nicholas Troszak, a 6-2 senior center who will anchor the middle for the Pilots. The epitome of a great student-athlete, according to his coach, Troszak will provide great leadership to a veteran team.
"Nick plays hard on both ends of the court," Esler said. "He's very unselfish. The only thing he's concerned about is whether we've got more points on the scoreboard than our opponent at the end of the game."
One of the players Esler is counting on to put the ball in the hoop is junior shooting guard Will Smythe, who returns after starting a year ago. The 6-3 Smythe is a 3-point specialist who is being recruited by Princeton, Harvard, Lehigh, and Brown universities. He's the top student in his class and a very smart player on the court.
"Will shoots the 3-pointer as good as anybody I've ever had, including Alex Marcotullio ('09 who played at Northwestern)," Esler raved. "His game is getting better because we know other teams are going to deny him the ball, so he's developing a mid-range game. We've drawn up some plays for Will. We know he can put it in the basket, no question."
Another returning starter from a year ago is senior Ryan Buszka, a 6-5 senior forward who will be relied upon to guard the other team's toughest post player. Known for his tough defensive play, Buszka does all the dirty work that doesn't show up on the stats, said his coach. He and junior Bryan Schneider will share in that role. Schneider, a 6-5, 200-pound big body, is very athletic and can move to the basket well. He's also a good rebounder.
In essence, the Pilots have five starters returning if you count junior point guard Linden Holder, who was a starter last year before breaking his ankle in the team's fourth game of the season. He's back and will once again start at the point.
"Linden can really handle the ball and is a great passer," said Esler, who admitted his team has good depth at the guard position. "He's very unselfish, but he's also a good shooter. Between him, Gjonaj and Smythe, we've got guys who can score for us this year."
Providing that depth in the backcourt will be senior Dominic Manion, juniors Leo Adewusi and Jacob Moceri and sophomores A.J. Whitehead and Caleb Reese. Manion and Moceri are back from last year's varsity team, while Adewusi, Whitehead, and Reese all moved up from the JV squad. Reese is expected to back up Holder at the point.
Though confident with his backcourt and starters up front, Esler said the team will have to develop more depth in the frontcourt, with 6-7 senior Grant Toutant sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered during the football season.
"We don't have a lot of depth up front, with just four post players returning with experience," the coach said. "We'll be looking for some of our younger players to step it up, guys like (sophomore) Carson Roose. He's 6-5 and he's getting better every day. My confidence in him is growing and he's going to be able to play some good minutes for us."
Junior Paul Kelliker is another newcomer, who along with Roose, will be learning on the go and expected to contribute as the season goes on.
The Pilots finished just 2-6 in Catholic League play in 2018-19. That's something Esler hopes to improve upon heading into the new season, which kicks off tonight on the road against Pontiac Notre Dame Prep. In the preseason coaches' poll, De La Salle was picked third in the Central Division behind St. Mary's and U-D Jesuit, and just ahead of Brother Rice and Catholic Central.
"You've got eight wars in this league," said Esler, whose Pilot teams have won 11 league titles over the years. "The thing about our league is if you have one bad week, you're done. Every game in the Catholic League is a war. It's going to be competitive. There's no question that I think we could win it, but you'd better be ready to play. There are teams a lot more athletic than we are. So we're going to need to do the little things well. I don't think we fear anything, which is good. I don't think anyone is going to do anything against us that we're not going to be prepared for.
"Playing for a Catholic League championship prepares you for the state tournament. If you win (this league), you know you can play with any team. Whoever wins the Catholic League Tournament is going to have a great state tournament."
The players are confident heading into the season as well.
"This year we have huge expectations for this team," said Gjonaj, who is looking to play college ball next year. "When I was a sophomore two years ago, when my brother (Kole) was a senior, we had nine seniors on that team and we lost all of them. Last year was a complete restart for this team and we didn't know what to expect. Halfway through the season we put it together and we became a pretty strong team. So now, going into our senior year, we've got all our pieces back together. I think we can make a run for the final four, for sure. I think that's our main goal, to make it to the Breslin Center."
The road to the final four will not be easy. De La Salle will be competing in the Warren Fitzgerald district. The winner will advance on to a regional which could include the likes of U-D Jesuit and Detroit King.
"It's a goal to get to the Breslin Center," Esler said. "There are a lot of great teams out there. I don't know one out there that I would say is a clear-cut favorite to win the state championship. It will be an interesting season. We're looking forward to the challenge."