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Pilots eye title, history

De La Salle hoops enters Catholic League play

By: Jon Malavolti | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published January 11, 2012

 Sophomore guard A.J. Turner is a rising star for Warren De La Salle, which is preparing to defend its three consecutive Catholic League titles.

Sophomore guard A.J. Turner is a rising star for Warren De La Salle, which is preparing to defend its three consecutive Catholic League titles.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Warren De La Salle’s basketball team is out to make history this year.

In the more than 85 years since the historic and competitive league has named a champion for its top division, only once has a school won four titles in a row. Novi-Detroit Catholic Central, back when the school was actually in Detroit, finished first every year from 1949-1952.

De La Salle, the current three-time defending champions, will look to win its fourth and join the Shamrocks in the record books as the Pilots enter Catholic High School League play this week.

But coach Greg Esler knows it won’t be easy, mentioning that Catholic Central, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and University of Detroit Jesuit “are going to give us all that we can handle.”

“I’m confident we can win the league,” the coach said.

With a target on their backs, courtesy of their recent league success, the Pilots will have to be ready to battle every night.

“It’s tough,” Esler said. “It adds pressure that everyone’s gunning for you. They’re playing to upset you. You’ve got to have your A-game every night.”

The Pilots have earned some high marks already this season, heading into league play with a 4-1 overall record. De La Salle’s early wins came against Grosse Pointe North, Rockford High, Saginaw Buena Vista and Grand Rapids Union. The lone loss was to Ann Arbor Skyline.

Esler noted that free-throw shooting, something the team has struggled with through some of its early games, especially in the loss, could make or break the Pilots.

“Right now, with our free throws, we’re not good enough to have an off night and win,” the coach said. “I think we’re going to be a very good team if we make free throws.”

As for strengths, Elser has a very balanced and deep team.

It starts with a talented, veteran senior trio of captains.

Forward Connar Tava, who has signed to play at Western Michigan University, is a double-double threat every night for the Pilots, according to the coach.

Joining him in the frontcourt are Brad Law and Justin Beal.

Senior Marc Wouters “has been doing a really good job” as the Pilots’ starting point guard, according to Esler.

A pair of players has been splitting the majority of minutes at shooting guard. Esler turns to sophomore A.J. Turner for points and senior Billy Petzold for defense. The coach noted that the athletic and versatile Turner is going to be a “great player for us.”

Esler also praised his bench rotation plenty, as juniors Josh Branch, Zach Paye and Tommy Novak, and senior Mark Temerowski have all made and are expected to continue to make major contributions on both ends of the floor.

Appropriately enough, Catholic Central was the first CHSL team scheduled to get that first crack at De La Salle; the programs were slated to open league play Jan. 10. The game, played after press time, marked the beginning of a tough opening group of games for the Pilots, who play four of their first five CHSL games on the road.

From there, De La Salle visits St. Mary’s for a 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13 tilt. The Pilots then head out of league action for a 4 p.m. Jan. 14 game against Detroit Henry Ford at Warren Fitzgerald.

Esler said this week “is going to be huge for us.”

“We’ve got three games on the road against three really, really tough teams,” he said. “After Saturday (Jan. 14), we’ll have a great idea of where we’re at.”

The Pilots’ league home opener is 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 against Birmingham Brother Rice.