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BURNEY’S BYTES: The top players in Greg Esler’s 33 years on the bench at De La Salle, Lakeshore

By: SCOTT M. BURNSTEIN, August 4, 2020, 12:11 pm

The great Greg Esler, one of the state’s most respected head boys basketball coach in history, retired with a 558-235 record last week. Esler teams were all heart and soul and always gave opponents tooth-and-nail competition.

The stats don’t lie on his career that spanned 33 years on the sidelines at Warren De La Salle and St. Clair Shores Lake: 11 Catholic Leagues, 27 districts, eight regionals, four final fours and one state title. Esler’s club defined work ethic, grit and execution. His players took the form of their coach; scrappy, hard-nosed grinders that got the job done my any means necessary.

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THE ALL-GREG ESLER SQUAD (1987-2020)

Travis Conlan (Lakeshore ’94 6-5 G) Coldblooded playmaker out of the backcourt, hit game-winner in ’94 state finals. The face of the first half of the Esler era. Started at the University of Michigan and had a long career overseas in Europe as a pro.

Alex Marcotullio (De La Salle ’09 6-3 G) The quintessential gunner. Quickest trigger and deepest range of any guard to play under Esler. Played in the Big Ten at Northwestern. 

Connar Tava (De La Salle ’12 6-6 F) Maybe the most complete player Esler ever coached. The total package inside-and-out, played with heart and a high hoop IQ. In college, he suited up for Western Michigan and Boston College.

Joe Novak (De La Salle ’03 6-5 F) Just the epitome of blue-collar basketball in every way, a blood-sweat-and-tears type baseline to baseline. Out-willed opponents night-in, night-out, defined the term played bigger than his size. 

Jon Zajac (Lakeshore ’93 6-8 F/C) Best big guy to ever play for Esler, pure domination around the rim and dangerous in the open floor with thunderous finishing power. Played in college at Buffalo and Eastern Michigan.

Matt Trombley (Lakeshore ’91 6-4 G)Most underrated player of the Esler cage regime, could get heated in a hurry, as fundamentally sound as any Esler player ever. Starred in college at Michigan Tech.

Keith MacKenzie (De La Salle ’05 6-2 G)Nails tough, had a nasty streak on the court that rubbed off on his teammates and made everyone around him stronger, grittier and more confident. The ultimate primetime performer. Played at Oakland University, became a Navy Seal. 

Don Fowler (De La Salle ’05 6-2 G)Tenacious competitor, bulldog in the backcourt, a hurricane of hustle and flow as a floor general. Played at Michigan Tech in college.

Kevin McKay (De La Salle ’16 6-6 G/F)Never got enough respect, played with a chip on his shoulder, didn’t have any weaknesses to his game. Starred at Central Michigan.

A.J. Turner (De La Salle ’14 6-7 G/F) Possibly the most overall talented player to pass through an Esler program, left early for prep school, abandoning a Mr. Basketball campaign for what have been his senior season in ’14. Played at the next level for Northwestern and Boston College.

Jeff Grauzer (De La Salle ‘02 6-4 G/F)Gutty and smart, the perfect combination of fire and ice at a swingman spot. Played in college at Grand Valley State. 

Luke Pfromm (De La Salle ’18 6-4 G) Captained Esler’s last final four squad in the winter of ’18 after quarterbacking the Pilots to a state title on the football field the previous fall. Could do it all and made it look easy. Is currently playing on the gridiron at Madonna.

[Courtesy photo]