WARREN, Mich. — For thousands of athletes around the state, the decision by the MHSAA to cancel the rest of the boys' basketball tournament was sudden, totally unexpected.
It was a big blow to endure, especially for the seniors out there who were looking for one final postseason run. It was no different at De La Salle — particularly for Josef Gjonaj — who has seen his share of high points and low points in his time with the Pilots.
"My four years of basketball at DLS have been a roller coaster," said Gjonaj, a three-year letter winner. "From being a freshman watching my older brother's team lose in the playoffs and watching the tears of sadness from the seniors in the locker room to being on the team the next year making it to the final four … the tears of joy. Obviously, this season didn't end the way it should have. Playoff basketball to me is the most exciting thing ever and I wish we could have gotten the chance to make the run that I knew this year's team was extremely capable of."
This year's Pilots finished 13-8 and had earned a spot in the Division 1 district championship game at Warren Fitzgerald. They were scheduled to play Warren Woods-Tower in the final, a team that they defeated 53-37 earlier in the season before the tournament was postponed and eventually canceled. Coach Greg Esler was confident his team was ready to make an impact in the tournament.
"I really felt like, in the end, we were going to make a run. We had won two of our last three games and had some momentum," Esler said. "We were feeling really good. If you look at our track record we usually make big runs in the tournament and I didn't think anything different this year. Unfortunately, it didn't happen the way we wanted."
The winner of the Fitzgerald district would have advanced to the Grosse Pointe North regional, where it would have faced either North Farmington or Farmington, with an opportunity to play U-D Jesuit, Detroit King, or Hamtramck in a regional final. The Pilots had already beaten Jesuit and Hamtramck earlier in the season.
But regardless of all the what-if scenarios — none of which were played out — De La Salle had a very good season in 2019-20, highlighted by those wins over Jesuit (15-7), Hamtramck (17-3), as well as a 64-61 win over Eastpointe (18-4).
De La Salle got off to a great start, winning its first five games and eight of its first 10. The team had beaten each of the teams above and played No. 1 ranked Orchard Lake St. Mary's extremely tough on the road in a 65-56 loss. But injuries began to take their toll on the team. And playing in the vicious Catholic League Central provided challenges night in and night out.
"I really felt like we could play with anybody — especially when we were healthy," Esler said. "But it just seemed like we never had the full contingent of players until maybe the last two or three games of the year."
The team lost starting forward Nick Troszak to a foot injury in early January. He missed six games.
"That hurt us. Nick was one of those guys that will go out and get you 8-10 points per game, 8-9 rebounds, take a charge or two and play solid defense. And we lost that. But that's a part of the game, injuries, and you've got to move on," Esler said.
The team also played without big men Grant Toutant and Paul Kelliker, who because of injuries sustained during the football season played just six games, combined.
The team will lose five seniors to graduation. Esler was very complimentary of each and every one:
- Josef Gjonaj … "Joe was no question a Top-30 player in the state. We're going to miss his ability to score. He was one of the few players we had who could create his own shot and had a knack for getting to the basket. And he loved to win. When he was good, we were really good."
- Nick Troszak … "I had the utmost respect for Nick, who was a great team player. He was so unselfish. All he cared about was winning the basketball game. It didn't matter what his stats were."
- Dominic Manion … "He was a tough kid who gave us everything he had at practice and when he got called on in games he always delivered. He was starting to play well at the end of the season."
- Ryan Buszka … "Injuries and sickness affected him this season. He was a hard worker, a really good rebounder who played solid defense for us."
- Grant Toutant … "He had a tremendous summer for us. I remember a tournament in Toledo, he had some nice post moves, got some rebounds. That hurt us (this season) right out of the get-go. Grant and Paul Kelliker pretty much missed the whole season for us. Those were two bigs that we were counting on."
- Rico Enoex (manager) … "Rico was very dedicated, a great leader for us and a good ambassador for the school."
"This was a good group of seniors, good kids. They're going to do well in whatever they decide to do in the future," Esler said. "This was a tough year overall (for the seniors). And you take a look at a guy like Gjonaj. Colleges were starting to look at him pretty good. The longer you remain in the tournament, the more looks you get from (college) coaches. I don't think he or Nick got a fair shake in that regard."
Gjonaj averaged more than 16 points and six rebounds to go along with 1.8 steals per game this season. Troszak averaged about eight points, five rebounds, and shot nearly 60 percent from the field.
De La Salle will return as many as 10 players next year, including starters Linden Holder, Will Smythe, and Caleb Reese — all in the backcourt. Holder was second on the team in scoring this year, averaging 12.3 points per game. Smythe scored 10 points a game and Reese provided timely baskets while averaging just under two steals per game.
"There's no question our guard play should be solid," Esler said. "I mean, (Linden) Holder and (Will) Smythe are going to be third-year varsity starters. And Caleb Reese is going to be able to take the next step. He can penetrate and play good defense.
"We're hoping Triston Nichols will be able to step in and replace Gjonaj, the guy who can get us some points game in and game out. I think he has a tremendous future ahead of him."
Esler said that in his 30-plus years of coaching, he had pulled up just two freshmen to his varsity teams — Travis Conlan (South Lake) and Kevin McKay (De La Salle). Nichols joined that list when he was pulled up for the Eastpointe game. He averaged 6.1 points over the team's final 17 games.
Juniors Bryan Schneider and Kelliker, along with sophomore Carson Roose will join Nichols in the frontcourt, an area of great need next year.
"Our guard play should be outstanding. We coaches need to develop some of our big guys," the coach said. "Carson Roose has great post moves. We've just got to get him a little stronger. But he has the game to give us depth down low.
"And if you look at our Freshman and JV teams, who went 20-0, we've got some JV guys that we're really going to be heavy on. We're really going to have to outwork people next year."
Juniors Jacob Moceri and Leo Adewusi and sophomore A.J. Whitehead will also be back, providing depth at the guard position.
"This season was amazing," Gjonaj said. "We had ups and downs but battled very hard and played with some of the best teams in the state. I loved this group of guys. I will miss the environment greatly, game days walking the hallways and battling with my brothers on the court. I will forever be a Pilot and the brotherhood will never be lost."