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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 are down to the final four weeks of this MHSAA boys basketball season – and while the entertaining part is detailed below in our regular Monday report, there’s some major data crunching underway behind the scenes as well.
Seeding the top two teams in every District requires thousands of data points – and a season-long process of collecting them all. More than 720 varsity teams are playing this winter, and we’re in the midst of a process of checking their schedules one by one – about a 24-hour task by itself to make sure all scheduled games are showing, league standings are set up correctly, etc.
Additionally, daily we’re sorting through disputed scores, changes to schedules because of weather or teams that have discontinued their seasons, and other adjustments. But we’re always striving for perfection – and when Districts are drawn and those top teams seeded Feb. 26, we hope to have every schedule up to date and every score filled in.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. North Farmington 68, Muskegon 55 These two have lived at or near the top of Division 1 MPR all season, making this win by the Raiders (12-1) at the 2K23 Showcase at Aquinas College arguably their best, especially considering it also was the first loss for the Big Reds (13-1).
2. Saline 57, Ann Arbor Huron 47 The Hornets (11-4) saw an eight-game winning streak end three days later, but in this one handed Huron (13-1) its lone defeat of the season.
3. Ann Arbor Huron 67, Benton Harbor 55 The River Rats, meanwhile, rebounded immediately with a 13-point win over Dexter and then a 67-55 victory over Benton Harbor (13-3) at Aquinas.
4. Warren Lincoln 52, Grand Rapids Northview 37 The Abes (12-3) just keep impressing, this time with a big win over a Northview team matching their 12-3 record, also during the 2K23 Showcase.
5. Iron Mountain 64, Powers North Central 58 This matched arguably the best in the Upper Peninsula in Divisions 3 and 4, respectively, with the Mountaineers moving to 13-1 and the Jets to 11-2.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Detroit U-D Jesuit (14-2) The Cubs have won outright or shared the last two Detroit Catholic League Central championships, and they’re hoping to run that streak to three by winning Friday’s rematch with first-place Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (14-1). A 68-53 defeat to the Warriors on Jan. 24 and a 67-64 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s on Jan. 6 have left Jesuit a game back, but the Cubs do have a sweep of reigning Division 1 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate plus early impressive nonleague wins over Clarkston and Ferndale.
Kalamazoo Central (13-2) After just missing the Division 1 Semifinals a year ago – losing to Northview by two in a Quarterfinal – the Maroon Giants are ahead of their 16-win pace from that finish with their only losses to Brother Rice and Battle Creek Lakeview (11-3), the latter by a point. They also defeated Lakeview in the teams’ first meeting, handed Mattawan its only loss and most recently defeated Detroit Renaissance at the 2K23 event.
Ferndale (7-6) Few if any have played a tougher schedule, especially considering Ferndale is Division 2 playing most of the Division 1 powers. The Eagles are No. 5 in Division 2 MPR despite a 1-5 start including losses to Brother Rice, Jesuit, St. Mary’s and Muskegon, and then a two-point loss to North Farmington last week. Meanwhile, Ferndale has defeated Grosse Pointe South (13-3), Flint Beecher (12-3), Clarkston (11-5) and River Rouge (10-5). The North Farmington rematch is Feb. 24, and a Feb. 11 matchup with Port Huron Northern should also boost MPR.
Grand Rapids Christian (10-4) The Eagles may be in fourth in the Ottawa-Kent Conference White, but they are No. 6 in Division 2 MPR. Three of the four losses were to league opponents, but Christian is coming off a 55-53 double-overtime win over Warren Michigan Collegiate (13-2) on Saturday at Aquinas. An early win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central and a Jan. 21 victory over De La Salle also stand out.
Flint Beecher (12-3) The Bucs are off to another big start after last season’s finish at the Division 3 Semifinals, losing only to Detroit Cass Tech (17-0), Benton Harbor and Ferndale as Beecher also has loaded up its nonleague schedule. Beecher also has four wins over teams with double-digit victories, with an 80-71 defeat of Flint Hamady (14-2) on Jan. 10 putting the Bucs in first in the Genesee Area Conference Red. The Hamady rematch is Feb. 18, before a major regular-season finish against Goodrich (13-1) and Grand Blanc (14-2).
Napoleon (14-0) The Pirates aren’t sneaking up on anyone after going 19-3 last season, but they are dominating nonetheless. All but one win have been by eight points or more, and Napoleon leads the Cascades Conference after finishing second last year with a pair of losses to Vandercook Lake. The Pirates not only defeated Vandercook in their first meeting, by 40, but next defeated Michigan Center by 17 after the Cardinals ended their season last winter. Napoleon also has a 63-45 win over Big 8 Conference co-leader Concord.
Baldwin (13-1) The Panthers are coming off an 18-5 finish and second place in the West Michigan D League, and they lead it this time by two games and with a win over Mesick after losing both meetings to the eventual league champ a year ago. Baldwin also has avenged a 2021-22 loss to Mason County Eastern and could avenge another hosting Traverse City Christian on Tuesday. The Panthers also have given Marion (11-4) half its losses.
Powers North Central (11-2) As noted above, the Jets are at least among the handful of elite small-school Upper Peninsula teams, No. 4 in statewide Division 4 MPR although second in D4 in the U.P. with Painesdale Jeffers in the top spot. Those two wouldn’t see each other until a Regional Final, where North Central’s 19-5 run ended last season. The Jets only defeats this time are to Division 2 Kingsford and Division 3 Iron Mountain, which stand a combined 25-3.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Goodrich (13-1) at Corunna (12-2) – They’re tied atop the Flint Metro League Stars with Goodrich winning the first meeting 69-54 on Jan. 10.
Friday – Detroit U-D Jesuit (14-2) at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (14-1) – As noted above, the Detroit Catholic League Central title will be on the line, as Jesuit can force a shared championship.
Saturday – Hamtramck (10-5) vs. Kalamazoo Central (13-2) at Benton Harbor – The Cosmos have faced their share of statewide elite as well, and will be seeking what would be one of their most notable wins in this Wilson Chandler Shootout matchup.
Saturday – Flint Hamady (14-2) at Davison (10-5) – Old rivals meet again as Davison is coached by longtime Beecher leader Mike Williams.
Saturday – Saginaw Arthur Hill (7-9) at Saginaw (14-4) – They’ll still have 2023-24 left before one the best rivalries in state history ends with a school merger, but this year’s rematch comes after Saginaw won 57-55 on Jan. 14.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Saginaw player gets to the rim during Friday's 59-54 loss to Mount Pleasant. (Middle) A Montabella player goes to the basket during his team's 43-28 win last week over Carson City-Crystal.(Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)