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Boys Basketball Semifinal Picks: Clarkston-DeLaSalle, Benton Harbor-River Rouge are two of the top games

By: Tom Markowski, March 21, 2018, 5:33 pm

Time passes quickly. As one grows older the pace accelerates.

The lesson learned is to take nothing for granted and enjoy the time we have with those with whom we cross paths.

This brief philosophy lesson leads us to Friday’s Class A semifinal between No. 2-ranked Clarkston and unranked Warren DeLaSalle. Game time is noon and, like all of the semifinals and finals, will be played at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Clarkston is coached by the town’s favorite son, Dan Fife. Much has changed in the last 365 days or so for Fife and his family. Before last season he was considered the best coach never to have won a state title. Fife, 68, in his 36th season as a head coach, all at Clarkston, and, because of last season, has had the label reduced to just one of the best coaches. Clarkston’s 75-69 victory over Grand Rapids Christian in the 2017 state final saw to that.

DeLaSalle is coached by the often-fiery Greg Esler. Esler, 63, is in his 24th with the Pilots after spending seven seasons as the coach at St. Clair Shores Lake Shore. Esler won a state title in his final season (1993-94, Class B) at Lake Shore and has achieved much success at DeLaSalle winning 21 district titles and six regionals. Esler is also considered one of the state’s top coaches.

But, oddly enough, they’ve never coached against one another. When Esler was at Lake Shore that would be understandable (Lake Shore a Class B school then). But one would think, at least guess, that Clarkston and DeLaSalle would have played, one game, somewhere.

Oh well. Let’s hope the meeting will be worth the wait. One would think, yes, it will be.

Fife and Esler have many similarities. Both have won one and only one state title. Both graduated from high schools in Oakland County, Fife from Clarkston, Esler from Hazel Park. Both are among the winningest coaches in state history. With 701 victories (170 losses), Fife trails Roy Johnston, who remains the coach at Beaverton, and the legendary Lofton Greene of River Rouge on the all-time list of victories won coaching a Michigan school. Esler’s career record is 531-216.

Each coach has taken his team to a Class A semifinal and lost. DeLaSalle lost to Detroit Redford in 2007, Clarkston lost to Kalamazoo Central in 2009. (Note: DeLaSalle reached the Class A semifinals in 1986 with Esler as an assistant coach. Clarkston reached the 1980 Class A semifinals but without Fife as head coach).

There are variances as well. For one, their game-day coaching styles are quite different. Fife, nearly always, will sit the entire game except for timeouts. Esler never sits. He constantly paces and, at times, will crouch near his assistants to gain their perspective. Esler’s style doesn’t always place him in good graces with officials. It’s not that Fife doesn’t converse with officials. He’s just not as generous with his words.

Returning to my first point.  Enjoy these great coaches while you can. They might not coach against each other again. Heck, it took them 31 years to do it once. Time passes quickly. 


Here are my picks and a brief analysis of the semifinals.

Friday’s semifinals

Class A

Warren DeLaSalle (19-7) vs. Clarkston (24-1), noon: DeLaSalle has no answer for Clarkston’s Mr. Basketball, Foster Loyer. Justin Fischer, at 6-4, might give Loyer problems at the point for a spell but he doesn’t have the quickness Loyer possesses. If DeLaSalle can shoot close to 40 percent from the 3-point range this game will be close. Otherwise…Pick: Clarkston by 8.


Novi (17-8) vs. Holland West Ottawa (24-2), 2: If it’s not volleyball or soccer, what is Novi doing in a state semifinal? Actually, the Wildcats nearly got here last season. A tough loss to West Bloomfield (67-66 in double overtime) in a region final prevented that. Traveon Maddox, Jr., has had more than his share of heroics for Novi this season but there’s only so many last-second shots one can make. West Ottawa has a strong inside game and that will prove to be the difference. Pick: West Ottawa by 3.


Class B


Benton Harbor (25-1) vs. River Rouge (23-1), 5:30: Just the school names themselves rings with tradition. River Rouge has won a state-record 13 titles and lost in the state semifinals last season. The Panthers’ Achilles heel is their youth. This inexperience could keep River Rouge from winning the title. But next year? Watch out.  Benton Harbor has been to seven Class A finals, winning three. The Tigers reached a Class B final in 2014 and got to the semifinals last season. One of Benton Harbor’s best teams (2—5, Class A) never got out of the regionals. That team was led by Mr. Basketball winner Wilson Chandler. How’s that history for you? Benton Harbor also boasts one of the state’s top sophomores in Carlos Johnson. Pick: Benton Harbor by 2.

New Haven (26-0) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (23-2), 7:30: These four teams are the best, as a group, in the Class B semifinal round since 2007 when Detroit Country Day, Stevensville Lakeshore, East Grand Rapids and Flint Southwestern reached this round. And they might be better. New Haven is loaded and full of confidence coming off of a state championship season. The Rockets could have the next Mr. Basketball winner in Romeo Weems. Catholic Central sports a Mr. Basketball finalist in Marcus Bingham, Jr., and the Cougars are anything but a one-player show. Jacob Polakovich is one of the state’s top power forwards and Darrell Belcher is a 6-3 junior who can score, defend and rebound. Pick: New Haven by 1.


Thursday’s semifinals

Class C

Detroit Edison (15-10) vs. Grand Rapids Covenant Christian (22-4), noon: Edison lost in the semifinals last season and Covenant Christian lost in the final. Flint Beecher eliminated both at the Breslin Center. Edison won the Detroit PSL title and played a number of Class A schools. Christian also played a number of larger schools including Wyoming Godwin Heights and Grand Rapids Christian. Covenant Christian likes to shoot from the perimeter and will use the backdoor pass in Edison decides to overplay those on the perimeter. Edison has three players who signed with Division I schools including Gary Solomon (LIU-Brooklyn), who needs to play well for Edison to reach its first final. Pick: Covenant Christian by 3.

Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (25-0) vs. Maple City Glen Lake (23-2), 2: SMCC is searching for its first trip to a state final; Glen Lake won its only title (Class D) in 1977. SMCC is all about defense as the Falcons have given up 60 or more points just once this season. Glen Lake likes to go inside with Cade Peterson (6-5), a quarterback on the football team, and 6-4 Xander Okerlund. Pick: Glen Lake by 2.


Class D

Dollar Bay (26-0) vs. Southfield Christian (21-4), 5:30: Dollar Bay is making its first appearance in a semifinal. The Blue Bolts lost to eventual champion Powers North Central by two points in a regional final last season and finished 19-5. Southfield Christian is about as good as it gets in this class. North Central was an athletic team last season and used its superior size to control the game near the basket. These Eagles like to get up and go. Pick: Christian by 15.

Hillsdale Academy (24-2) vs. Buckley (20-5), 7:30: After struggling early (3-3 start), Buckley gradually improved to where it would be a surprise if the Bears didn’t make a return trip to the final. Peter Kalthoff, a 6-7 senior, is Hillsdale Academy’s top player and could give the Bears problems. If Kalthoff gets off to a good start, look for Buckley coach Blair Moss to go with 6-6, 270-pound senior Nick Kuhn in the middle. Pick: Buckley by 7.  

Quarterfinal record: 15-1