Prep notebook: De La Salle sprints off to sizzling 5-0 start under first-year coach Djokaj

De La Salle has toppled Birmingham Brother Rice, Detroit Renaissance and Detroit Country…

Prep notebook: De La Salle sprints off to sizzling 5-0 start under first-year coach Djokaj 1
Prep notebook: De La Salle sprints off to sizzling 5-0 start under first-year coach Djokaj 2

David Goricki
| The Detroit News

Warren De La Salle is off to a surprising 5-0 start under first-year head coach Gjon Djokaj, outscoring opponents by an average of 30 points to find itself sitting at No. 13 in The News Super 20 rankings.

Some of those victories have come against storied programs, including a 59-42 rout of Birmingham Brother Rice, which opened the season ranked No. 6. Detroit Renaissance (85-43) and Detroit Country Day (73-34) have also fallen to the De La Salle buzzsaw.

No doubt, Djokaj had big shoes to fill when Greg Esler retired this past summer after a 26-year run at De La Salle, which included a record of 425-199 and state Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2018.

Esler, who guided St. Clair Shores Lake Shore to the Class B state championship with Travis Conlan (Michigan) leading the way in 1994, took over at De La Salle in 1995, directing De La Salle to Catholic League titles in 2002, and then three straight championships from 2009-11.

De La Salle lost to Clarkston in a Class A state semifinal in 2018, finishing 19-8, then finished 13-10 in ’19 (2-6 Catholic Central) and 13-8 last season (2-6 Central).

Djokaj, 39, was head coach at Walled Lake Northern the previous three years.

Djokaj teaches what he learned while playing at North Farmington under head coach Tom Negoshian, helping his team win consecutive league titles and a district championship in 1998-99.

“There’s few opportunities I would have even considered looking at since I liked it at Northern,” Djokaj said. “I just felt being a competitive coach myself and viewing the Catholic League Central as the best league in the state it was just an opportunity and challenge I had to take so I threw my name in the hat to see what would happen. I felt it was a perfect match for me.”

More: David Goricki’s boys high school basketball rankings: Feb. 21

De La Salle players have embraced the team concept, which has led to the undefeated start, Djokaj said.

“We have a bunch of gym rats who have put in a lot of time and bought into playing hard defensively,” Djokaj said. “We have some size, but I’d consider us compared to other teams an undersized team, but what we lack in height we make up in heart by playing extremely hard on both ends, unselfish offensively and aggressive defensively. I feel they enjoy being around each other and play the right way.

“We like to get out and run whenever we can, share the ball well. We start what I call a semi-three-headed monster of three point guards, so we have good ball possession when we need it, but we do try to attack the glass and run. I feel like we have nine starters, have good depth and we just kind of cycle guys in and out and as long as the intensity is there we do well.”

More: David Goricki’s girls high school basketball rankings: Feb. 21

Senior Linden Holder, junior Caleb Reese and sophomore Nino Smith are the trio of point guards. Triston Nichols, a 6-foot-4 receiver on the football team, starts at forward with 6-8 Mike Sulaka, who has an offer from Saginaw Valley, getting the job done inside.

Djokaj felt De La Salle did a good job of rebounding against Brother Rice in the second half.

“I thought we did really well in transition, did a nice job of holding them to one shot in the second half,” Djokaj said. “We got out and ran a bit and once we started doing that we started finding guys open for threes and we just shot the ball really well in the second half.”

De La Salle made eight 3-pointers in the second half against Brother Rice with Holder and Reese leading the way.

De La Salle plays at Okemos Thursday, then hosts Catholic League defending champion and No. 1 ranked Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Saturday (4 p.m.).

“We want to challenge ourselves against the best and St. Mary’s is the preseason No. 1 team, so they are the barometer and we want to see where we stack up against them so it’s exciting,” Djokaj said.

L’Anse Creuse North rolling

Brooke Daniels and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North battled MAC Red/White tournament champion Port Huron to the limit before suffering a 44-41 district semifinal loss last season to finish 16-5.

Well, Daniels — now a junior point guard — and L’Anse Creuse North have used that experience to fuel a 5-0 start and No. 18 ranking in The News Super 20.

North opened the season with an impressive 58-41 win over Port Huron.

“We’ve matured and now those good sophomores are juniors and we have a couple of really good seniors who are contributing,” North coach Bob Johnson said. “Our numbers are low because of COVID, but we’ve adapted with this new fifth-quarter rule. We only have seven girls on the varsity, so we didn’t have a lot of girls come out, but those seven girls played a lot last year.”

This year, the MHSAA put in a fifth-quarter rule, similar to one used in Indiana where a player can play five quarters in a day. The regulation allows player to play four quarters in a junior varsity game and one quarter in a varsity game.

“So what’s occurred … is we’ve taken four or five of those kids and put them on the varsity bench and mixed them in,” Johnson said. 

“It’s really been a blessing because those younger kids are gaining some experience that they wouldn’t necessarily gotten otherwise so that rule has really helped us. We’re playing at a pretty high level when they come in, so we still have the same expectations on them, but there’s not the stress level of being involved in the varsity team on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Daniels still makes North go, averaging 18 points, six assists, six rebounds and six steals. Jekiah Mack, a shooting guard, is healthy again after suffering a torn ACL early last season. Mack is averaging nine points, as is 5-11 senior forward Kelsey Duffey who scored 13 in a 56-36 win over Romeo last week. Sophomore guard Makalya Downs and Olivia Chadwick are also key contributors.

“Brooke Daniels in my opinion is clearly the best player in the east side and one of the top 20 in the state,” Johnson said. “She does everything well, a junior point guard, long arms, quick lateral foot speed, just a great athlete and a basketball junky.”

Penn State has shown interest in Daniels, as has North Dakota State.

“The kids now expect more of themselves, really embracing every minute that they are together,” Johnson said. “We like to push the ball up the floor and Jekiah is playing at a high level after working her tail off to get back on the court again.”

Freshman Reese Sparks is one of the players taking advantage of the five-quarter rule, playing two or three quarters in the JV game and the rest of her time at the varsity level.

Hamtramck pulls upset

Hamtramck played River Rouge tough last season, dropping a pair of close games.

Obviously, playing well against one of the top programs in the state helped Hamtramck’s confidence coming into this season, reinforced by its 62-56 win over No. 1 River Rouge on Friday.

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Hamtramck (5-0) took an early 19-7 lead and never trailed in a signature win, pushing its way up the chart to No. 6 in The News Super 20.

Senior guard Javier Whitaker, who scored 40 earlier this season against Detroit Catholic Central, had 16 points against River Rouge.

Hamtramck will have another big challenge on its hands when it plays at No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Tuesday night.

This week’s top games

►No. 6 Birmingham Marian at No. 9 Harper Woods Chandler Park, Monday, 6 (girls)

►No. 6 Hamtramck at No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, Tuesday, 7

►No. 5 West Bloomfield at No. 1 Detroit Edison, Tuesday, 6:30 (girls)

►No. 15 Clarkston at No. 10 Ferndale, Wednesday, 7

►No. 8 Detroit King at No. 16 Detroit Douglass, Friday, 4

►Grosse Pointe South at Macomb Dakota, Friday, 7

►No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at No. 13 Warren De La Salle, Saturday

►Belleville at Ypsilanti Lincoln, Saturday, 7

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