Esler Pilots DeLaSalle Back to Final Week

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 19, 2018

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.

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)