WARREN – There isn’t much that Greg Esler hasn’t seen or experienced as a coach and as a father.
Through it all he’s learned to take nothing for granted, in life and as a coach.
Esler, 63, coached St. Clair Shores Lake Shore to its first and only MHSAA boys basketball title in 1994, in Class B. That team was led by Travis Conlan, who finished second in the voting for Mr. Basketball that season. Conlan would go on to play at University of Michigan, one of a number of Esler-coached players who went on to the college – and for some – professional ranks.
Esler is in his 31st season as a head coach, with the last 24 at Warren DeLaSalle. Twenty-one times the Pilots have won a District title with Esler on the bench. In 2007, DeLaSalle reached a Class A Semifinal for just the second time in school history, as it lost to Manny Harris and Detroit Redford 56-50. (Note: In addition to two Class A Semifinal appearances, DeLaSalle also reached a Class B Final in 1982).
Consistency has been a hallmark of Esler’s programs, and even after all these years a fire burns in his stomach. He’s retained a burning desire to compete and to win. As the years have piled up, Esler has become more appreciative of the success his program has achieved and the experiences gained.
So when DeLaSalle defeated Macomb Dakota, 56-51, in a Regional Final last Wednesday, there was reason to celebrate. As good as DeLaSalle has been recently, it hadn’t won a Regional title since 2010. The Pilots have been to the Detroit Catholic League final each of the last three seasons and have won five District titles since 2010 including the last three. But the end of last season stung more than most. DeLaSalle reached a Regional Final and then lost to Troy, 48-40, in an ugly game where the Pilots shot less than 30 percent from the field.
Most of that team is back as the Pilots head into the final week of this season. Esler has nine seniors including two of the top players in the league in point guard Justin Fischer and guard-forward Luke Pfromm, the starting quarterback on the Division 2 championship football team.
Esler started coaching at Warren St. Anne grade school in 1983, then went to DeLaSalle for three seasons beginning in 1985 under then-coach Gary Buslepp. Esler got his shot as a head coach in 1987 at Lake Shore and quickly made that program relevant. Lake Shore reached the Class B Semifinals in 1993 before losing to coach Norwaine Reed and Saginaw Buena Vista.
Esler took over the DeLaSalle program at the start of the 1994-95 season. His career record stands at 530-216 heading into tonight’s Class A Quarterfinal against Detroit U-D Jesuit.
“We instilled a system here,” he said. “The first thing is to have your players in condition. Second is defense. I’ve always stressed defense. And third, and maybe this should be first, is talent. We’ve always had really good players here. And the players we’ve had want to get better.”
What often goes unnoticed in a basketball program is the work of the assistant coaches. Esler has been blessed with loyal and knowledgeable assistants. His top assistant is Tom Mehl, who played for Esler for two seasons at Lake Shore. Mehl was on staff for Esler’s last four seasons at Lake Shore and has been with Esler every step of the way at DeLaSalle.
Jeff Becker is in his 13th season as an assistant, and another, Dave Grauzer, recently left the program and now is an assistant at Traverse City West.
“Surrounding yourself with good people is at the top of the list,” Esler said. “One thing about Tom, there’s no one I’ve seen who can go to a game to scout and pick up something no one else would see. Like a player who takes two dribbles before driving to his right or left. For Becker, it’s organization. He works well with the kids, and he’s got the post players. Mehl has the guards.
“Over the years I’ve listened. Listened to other coaches. I don’t have all the answers. I talk to Steve Hall at (Detroit) Cass Tech all the time. He’s been a great friend over the years.”
This team has a closeness not always seen. The fact that there are nine seniors is one reason. Esler points out that he’s been with this group for more than 100 days this season, and when you’re around a group that long tempers can flare – so it’s important to keep the present in perspective and realize they all want to reach the same goal.
“We do a lot of things outside of basketball,” Esler said. “Last week four of my captains read to the students at (St. Clair Shores) St. Germaine grade school. My wife, Renee, is a fourth and fifth grade teacher there, and it’s way for the players to interact with the younger students.
“I read an article recently on (Michigan) coach (John) Beilein and how the game has changed. The kids have changed. We watch game film but not like we used to. Their attention span isn’t like it used to be. The technology now, with Facebook and texting, it’s unbelievable. We might watch film for 20 minutes where we used to watch for hours.
“My players will tell you, I love the practices much more than they do. Games are like taking a test. If you didn’t win, maybe you failed at some area that cost you. They love each other and they do a good job of listening. All five starters have scored 20 points or more in a game this season. And they don’t get rattled. We were down four to Dakota with four minutes to go and Pfromm came to me in the huddle and said, ‘Don’t worry coach. We got this.’ I can see why they won a state title in football.”
Fischer has matured significantly as a leader and force offensively. A three-year starter, he has signed with Lake Superior State.
Fischer came into the program as a skinny 5-foot-10 freshman. By the time he was a junior, he had grown five inches. Now he’s 6-4 and weighs 185 pounds.
“I was a pass-first guard as a sophomore,” he said. “I’ve worked on my shooting, just working on my total game.
“We were pumped up for that Dakota game. We got the crowd going crazy. We were down and Luke hit a couple of 3s. I had a dunk and hit four free throws late.”
DeLaSalle (18-7) will play Catholic League Central rival Detroit U-D Jesuit (22-3) next. The Class A Quarterfinal will be played Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Calihan Hall, the site of the Catholic League final. Jesuit won that game, 71-64. In fact, Fischer has lost nine consecutive games to U-D as a varsity player.
He shouldn’t feel alone. DeLaSalle hasn’t defeated U-D since 2014 when the teams tied for the Catholic League Central regular-season title – a streak of 14 straight defeats to the Cubs. U-D won this season’s meetings 64-45, 59-57 and 64-55.
Esler keeps U-D recent domination of his program on the light side.
“I’ve said I’d have to coach until 2031 to get to .500 against them,” he said.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle coach Greg Esler talks things over during his team’s Regional Final win against Macomb Dakota. (Middle) Justin Fischer launches a free throw during the 56-51 victory.
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)