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BOYS BASKETBALL: De La Salle at it again, Pilots’ hoop crew creating havoc despite obstacles

By: Scott Burnstein, January 20, 2014, 8:00 am

WARREN – The road blocks encountered by the Warren De La Salle boys basketball team have only served to harden the Pilots’ resolve and sharpen their spirit and focus.

De La Salle is red-hot, sitting with an 8-2 record and coming off two big wins.

On Friday, the Pilots plowed past Catholic League rival Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 56-36 and then on Saturday they downed state-ranked Detroit Douglas 49-44 in the annual Horatio Williams MLK Classic at Warren Fitzgerald High School.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.

Pilots head coach Greg Esler and his club were delivered a potentially-devastating blow in the offseason when star player, A.J. Turner, someone pegged as a Mr. Basketball candidate this winter, left town and transferred to a prep school in New Hampshire.

It didn’t help matters either that De La Salle was going to be relatively young and inexperienced to boot.

The local prep sports media, usually complimentary of the program, left them for dead in their preseason predictions.

None of it has made that much, if any, of a difference.

Per standard operating procedure under Esler’s near two-decade regime, the Pilots are one of the best and feistiest squads in the whole state.

“We just put in the work and have kids that believe in our system,” the longtime area sideline general said. “It’s the type of mentality that gets passed down at De La Salle and that’s why a lot of times you see different guys stepping into and succeeding in key roles year after a year. When you guard and hit the boards, which I think are trademarks of this program, you’ll put yourself in good position to win ball games, no matter who you have in your lineup.”

While Turner is gone, much talent still remains at the traditional Macomb County hoops powerhouse.

Seniors Jimmy Chapmen and Nelson Cagle and sophomore Chris Rollins make up De La Salle’s under-the-radar, yet ultra-dangerous backcourt.

Fab freshman Jack Ballentyne (6-foot-9), standout sophomore Kevin McKay (6-foot-5) and rugged junior, Alex Capoccia (6-foot-5) pace the frontcourt.

Rollins is the club’s fast-rising floor general. He can create, finish and shoot it from deep. Going head-to-head with Dayton-signee Darrell Davis of Douglas Saturday, he looked fantastic, recording 19 points and six assists.

Chapmen and Cagle are each expert marksmen and sticky defenders. An offensive sparkplug when he gets in rhythm, Chapmen is the team’s captain.

"Jimmy is an excellent leader, he plays the right way," Esler said.

Not only is Cagle one of the most consistent 3-point bombers in Metro Detroit, he’s also one of it’s top on-ball defensive players. He arrived at De La Salle late last season by way of Novi.

Matching up versus St. Mary’s star Teddy McCree back on Friday, Cagle didn’t surrender an inch and harassed the Eaglets’ junior swingman into a miserable four-point effort, totally nullifying him as a go-to option the entire night.

“Nelson can really frustrate people with his skills on defense, he’s simply relentless shadowing his man,” Esler said.

In the post, Ballentyne is a premiere ninth-grader in the state, Capoccia is a typical CHSL bruiser and McKay is an emerging inside-outside threat among the best there is to offer in the state’s Class of 2016.

McKay is in his second season starting and Chapmen’s co-captain.

“The underclassmen (McKay, Rollins, Ballentyne) we’ve got have the chance to be very, very good,” Esler said. “They’ve made phenomenal progress. It’s going to be exciting to watch them keep prospering.”

Twenty years ago this March, Esler guided St. Claire Shores Lake Shore to a Class B state championship, the only state basketball title ever captured by a team spawning from Macomb County. The following season, in 1995, he took the De La Salle job and since then has continued as well as built upon the Pilots’ great hardwood tradition.

This year it appears Esler and his squad are writing another juicy chapter.