No ifs, ands, or buts about it, Gjon Djokaj made a heck of a first impression in his inaugural season as Pilots head coach.
The former Walled Lake Northern head man led the Purple and Gold to an 8-3 record during the COVID-19-abbreviated 2020-21 regular season. He notched wins against heavyweight programs such as Catholic League Central division rival Birmingham Brother Rice (in DLS's first of two matchups with Rice) and non-conference foe Detroit Edison.
The Pilots' regular season came to a close with a 58-56 loss to Brother Rice in a Catholic League Tournament semifinal contest.
Senior guard Linden Holder was the "straw that stirred the drink" for DLS all season long. Yet, sophomores Triston Nichols, Nino Smith, and Michael Sulaka, as well as junior Caleb Reese, all also made consistent contributions.
Holder was named All-Catholic, and Nichols and Reese were each named All-League for their efforts. Meanwhile, senior Jacob Moceri was named to the Catholic League's All-Academic team.
Holder put up back-to-back 30-point performances during the season, first on March 11 against U-D Jesuit and then on Senior Night March 13 against Edison.
In 11 regular season games in 2021, Holder averaged a team-high 17.9 points per game, to go along with 4.2 assists and five rebounds per game.
The Pilots then proceeded to go on a run in the state playoffs.
They advanced all the way to the MHSAA Division 1 Final Four at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. In their state semifinal contest, they suffered defeat at the hands of Ann Arbor Huron, 55-39.
Along the way, they made some history, too.
Not only did Djokaj & Co. beat CHSL rival U-D Jesuit, 64-59, for a regional championship, but for the first time ever, the Purple and Gold captured a regional crown at the Bill Fox Gymnasium -- the first time the regional round of the state tournament was held on the campus of DLS.
Djokaj was elated for his team after the game.
"I'm just so happy for the boys. It's always about these kids. It just means so much to all of us because we put in so much time and so much effort," Djokaj said. "We sacrificed so much, time away from our families, time away from our friends, just quarantining ourselves as much as possible. And these kids haven't waned from that, even during stoppages. They've been like, 'Hey, we're going to practice tomorrow. That's what we want to do.' And, I just love every single one of them."
Holder wouldn't have wanted to win the regional championship anywhere else.
"Oh, man, winning here was amazing," Holder commented. "In my sophomore year, I broke my ankle, and couldn't even play. Then, last season was cut short because of COVID. So, this feels amazing. In my senior year, to do this with my brothers, whom I love, it's amazing -- and especially with us being able to win on our home court."
The Purple and Gold easily took care of business in the next round, defeating Macomb Dakota, 68-33, in a quarterfinal matchup at Detroit Renaissance HS.
Next up for the Pilots was a trip to the Breslin for a state semifinal affair with the Huron River Rats. DLS fought and fought until it could no longer.
The Pilots dropped the contest with the River Rats, bringing an end to their unforgettable campaign.
The 2021 season for the Purple and Gold was about so much more than the Final Four loss.
It was about the entire journey, from start to finish, including getting acclimated to a new head coach in Djokaj and overcoming the adverse circumstances that were presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
"It was an unbelievable journey. I got hired here in late September. These guys welcomed me in. I told them in the locker room that they are De La Salle and that I was the newcomer. And it had to become a situation where I had to earn their trust," Djokaj said after the Huron loss. "And to be honest with you, sometimes that can be a challenge. These guys had an open mind from the beginning, though, and eliminated that challenge from the rip. And right away, they started learning about each other and learning our system."
Holder will never forget the journey he and his teammates went on this season.
"This is something I'll never forget. I'll never forget my coaches. I'll never forget my brothers, my teammates," Holder commented. "This is lifelong. It's just a moment, but it's going to last forever."
Although the Pilots weren't a preseason favorite to make it to the Div. 1 semifinals, Holder knew at the beginning of the season that the Purple and Gold were capable of making a deep run in the state tournament.
"It was something I knew we could do. But, back around August, we didn't even have a coach," Holder said. "So, it was wishy-washy, and no one really knew what was going on. My teammates and I all knew we could make it to the Breslin, though. But, it was a long way to go, and getting there was just amazing."
If the 2021 season taught us anything, it's to never count out the Pilots.
The 2021 bowling season was unlike anything DLS head coach Jay Lang, '92, had ever experienced before.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, teams were limited to six bowlers per match, instead of the usual eight, and the time between tryouts and DLS's first meet was reduced from a month to six days.
Despite the unusual times, though, the varsity squad persevered, and managed to put together a 7-3 season, good for a second-place finish in Catholic League regular season play. Lang & Co. followed it up with a runner-up finish in the Catholic League Tournament.
Senior captain Jack Gohlke led the way for the Pilots all season long. He bowled a Catholic League season-high 290 for a single game, and posted a 524 in a two-game series -- the second-highest two-game series total in the league in 2021.
Gohlke also produced a 212 average -- good for second best in the league -- and earned All-Catholic League honors as a result of his dominant play.
He's come a long way since nearly being cut on the last day of tryouts during his freshman year at Macomb Dakota. He transferred to DLS in time for his sophomore year.
"It's really cool to have been named All-Catholic League, knowing how hard I've worked the last four years," Gohlke said. "I had never bowled competitively until my freshman year at Dakota. However, the Dakota girls bowling coach (Paul Price) thought I was coachable and thought he could do something with me. And the rest is history."
Fast-forward to this year's Catholic League Tournament, where he put on an impressive display.
DLS went up against the U-D Jesuit Cubs in the semifinals. The Cubs won the CHSL regular season championship. However, due to a positive COVID-19 case, they had to use their junior varsity team in the tourney.
And boy, did the Cubs still give the Pilots a run for their money.
In fact, DLS's first of two semifinal matches with U-D went down to the bitter end. Luckily, for the Pilots, just the right man had the bowling ball in his hands to close out the match: Gohlke.
The Purple and Gold needed two straight strikes and a nine-pin from Gohlke to defeat the Cubs, and he delivered just that. As a result, the Pilots beat U-D in game one, 157-156, and they went on to sweep the three-game series.
DLS was unable to carry that momentum into the finals, and fell to Divine Child in back-to-back games.
Jack's younger brother, Drew Gohlke, a sophomore, was a big contributor throughout the season as well, finishing with a 198 average and a high game of 268.
Meanwhile, the Pilots' JV team finished the season with a 7-3 record and in a tie for second place in the CHSL. The JV bowlers who recorded high games this year were Eddie Olejniczak (278), Brent Charrette (278), and Matt Lachajewski (268).
The 2021 Pilots wrestling season was an up-and-down one under new head coach David Prince, who replaced present DLS athletic director Dennis Parks as head man in the fall 2020.
Prince had a young team, consisting of eight freshmen, 11 sophomores, four juniors, and five seniors. Additionally, only two of those seniors were in the starting lineup -- Kenneth Ryder and Brett Stanley.
The Purple and Gold finished the regular season with a 9-12 mark, and defeated Sterling Heights and Fraser to be crowned district champions in the MHSAA Division 1 state tournament. The Pilots bowed out in the regional round of the tournament to Macomb Dakota, 46-24.
From an individual standpoint, the Pilots were led by underclassmen Nathan O’Donnell (sophomore) and Joey Montilla (freshman), as well as upperclassmen Dominic Ragona (junior), Jeff Roskopp (junior), Clayton Beleshi (senior), Ryder, and Stanley.
Ragona finished third in the 160-pound weight class in individual district competition. Additionally, Beleshi finished first in the 215-pound weight class, and Ryder finished first in the 171-pound division.
Meanwhile, Stanley, a two-time all-state wrestler, finished first in district competition in the 189-pound class, and logged a record of 24-2 for the season.
Other individual district highlights included Roskopp finishing second in the 285-pound division, senior Michael Olind finishing third in the 285-pound class, Montilla finishing third in the 125-pound division and O’Donnell finishing fourth in the 125-pound class.
All of the aforementioned individuals subsequently qualified for regional competition.
Ryder, Beleshi, and Roskopp all proceeded to finish in second place in their respective weight classes at regionals, while Olind recorded a third-place finish and Montilla logged a fourth-place finish in their respective divisions.
Each of their performances was good enough to qualify for the MHSAA individual state championships at the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo. It gave the Pilots five state qualifiers -- the most in school history.
Of the five student-athletes, Roskopp was the lone Pilots wrestler to receive all-state honors, as he placed eighth at the Div. 1 state finals.
"This season was a roller coaster, going from not being sure if we’ll have a season (due to the coronavirus pandemic), to being told we can start competing all of a sudden," Prince said. "We worked hard to get in as much wrestling as we possibly could, in the limited time we had on the mats, before competition started. I'm proud of the boys and how they adapted to the adverse circumstances."
After a rough 2019-20 season that saw the Pilots go just 4-21 overall, the team experienced quite the turnaround this season under the leadership of head coach Sean Clark.
Clark had previously served as DLS's head man during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, a period during which the Purple and Gold amassed an overall record of 24-21-6, including a 10-8-2 mark in the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League South division.
Clark and the Pilots finished 8-5-1 in the COVID-19 abbreviated 2020-21 season, with big wins in the regular season against Orchard Lake St. Mary's and L'Anse Creuse Unified.
They followed up their solid regular season with a run to the MHSAA regional finals, where they lost to U-D Jesuit, 3-2.
Some highlights from the season included hat tricks for senior Gavin Milne and junior Seaton Heilman against Grosse Pointe North -- Feb. 13 for Milne and Feb. 17 for Heilman.
Milne led the Pilots with nine goals, and he and Heilman tied for a team-high 16 points.
Swimming and Diving
DLS head swimming coach Jim Singelyn, '90, did something in 2021 that he had never done prior in his 12 years coaching at the school: He taught a student-athlete how to swim.
The student ended up becoming a part of the Pilots diving team, and even qualified for regionals.
His name: DeNiro Johnson.
Johnson, a member of the DLS varsity football team, proved that he was serious about learning from Singelyn immediately.
The junior showed up at the Warren Woods Tower pool at 8 a.m. the morning after losing in the MHSAA Division 2 state championship football game to Muskegon Mona Shores.
According to Singelyn, it took Johnson only about an hour to learn how to swim.
Then, Singelyn took it a step further, and got Johnson jumping off the diving board.
"DeNiro's a natural athlete, and I saw him doing backflips in the gym one day, which made me think that he should try diving," Singelyn said. "And we just kept having him dive over and over again until he felt comfortable doing it."
Johnson proceeded to meet DLS diving coach Kory Hison the following Monday. And, through Hison's and fellow Pilots diver Joey Basha's guidance, Johnson became an MHSAA regional qualifier.
Meanwhile, Basha has only added to his standout career.
An All-American qualifier three times and a two-time Macomb County Diver of the Year, Basha won the Catholic League diving championship for the third time in his career, and finished second in the Macomb County Championship meet. He also qualified for states by finishing fifth in MHSAA regional competition.
As a team, DLS finished fourth in the Macomb County Championship and fifth in the CHSL swimming championships.
The Pilots who qualified for states were senior Juan DiCosmo in the 200-yard individual medley, sophomore Carson Ricker in the 100-yard breaststroke and 100-yard butterfly, junior Michael Paluch in the 100-yard breaststroke, the 400-yard freestyle relay team of junior Max Swiatkowski, DiCosmo, Ricker, and freshman Devin Dilger, and Dilger in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyles.
Swiatkowski also qualified for states in the 200-yard individual medley, and won the 100-yard backstroke at the county meet.
Additionally, Dilger won the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyles at both the Macomb County Championship and the CHSL championship meet.
Other state qualifiers were senior Joe Marable and sophomore Michael Slusser, as part of the 200-yard freestyle relay team -- along with Paluch and DiCosmo. Meanwhile, senior Jack Lubinski was DLS's 200-yard freestyle relay alternate.
At the MHSAA Div. 2 swimming and diving state finals at Jenison High School, Dilger placed fifth in the 100-yard freestyle and sixth in the 50-yard freestyle, garnering all-state recognition in both races.
Meanwhile, Basha finished fifth in the diving final, becoming an all-state diver for the fourth time in as many years -- the first four-time all-state diver in school history.
"The boys proved they can handle anything this season, and never wavered from their goals," Singelyn said. "And for that, I am immensely proud of them."