By Joe Henricksen
De La Salle basketball's quest to take the next step as a program is as close to reality as it's been in a long time. As the Meteors head into the 2010-2011 season next November, the expectations will be as high as they've been since the Jerry Tokars-coached teams in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
With the official announcement of the return of talented Dre Henley, who spent a year at Carbondale Brehm Prep working on his academic situation, De La Salle clearly becomes a preseason top five team. Even without Henley, who played his first two seasons at De La Salle, the Meteors would have been pushing towards the top five. But now Henley will team with 6-8 Mike Shaw, a coveted high-major prospect, and highly-thought-of 6-7 sophomore Alex Foster to form a nucleus that is as good as it gets in Illinois.
Coach Tom White will have to replace some valuable role players from a year ago, most notably D.J. Bland, who brought defensive energy, toughness and some surprising scoring abilities, but with Henley, Shaw and Foster the Meteors have an intimidating, versatile and big frontline. Plus, Henley is capable of playing any position on the floor if needed.
What makes the coming season even more intriguing is the fact last year's sophomore team was as dominant as any lower-level team in the city and suburbs last winter -- and that was without Foster and another freshman, talented guard Jaylon Tate, playing up on the varsity. Foster, Tate and classmate Alvin Ellis, a 6-4 wing with tremendous upside, are three of the top 10 players in the Class of 2013. And there is more talent on the way. There is Marcus White, a 5-8 point guard, who played on the sophomore team as a freshman last year and is having a solid spring and summer on the travel circuit, along with junior-to-be Pat Haynes, a 6-3 wing who was a big contributor to the success of the sophomore team and may be able to fill a role this season.
While many in the Chicago area have talked about the talents of Foster, Whitney Young's Tommy Hamilton and Simeon's Jabari Parker in the loaded Class of 2013, both Tate and Ellis have the potential to be special players as well. Tate played a big role a year ago and gained valuable varsity guard experience as a freshman, while Ellis is booming with potential and is already a college prospect despite not having played varsity basketball.
The Meteors have won three straight regional championships under White -- and six regional titles since White took over in 1995-96. However, getting over the sectional hump has been the hurdle the Meteors have not been able to clear. A year ago De La Salle fell to Foreman, 63-55, in the sectional final. A couple of years ago eventual 2009 state champ Whitney Young defeated the Meteors 55-52 in the sectional championship. Catholic League rival Mount Carmel ended De La Salle's season three years ago in the sectional semis.
Under former coach Jim Tracy, De La Salle won five regional championships in seven years in the 1980s but again fell short of claiming a sectional championship.
The last sectional championship for De La Salle? Nearly 30 years ago in 1983 when Tony La Russa was managing and Carlton Fisk was catching for the White Sox down the street at old Comiskey Park. The Meteors fell to Thornton in the supersectional that season.
De La Salle's heyday in hoops came in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Tokars led three teams to the Elite Eight in Champaign, including the 1976-77 team that finished third in the state. That Meteor team, led by a rising star in 6-6 sophomore Darryl Allen and senior Ray Rhone, beat old Weber in the supersectional and knocked off Collinsville by one point in the state quarterfinals. A state semifinal loss to Springfield Lanphier ended De La Salle's state title dreams.
The 1980s, which produced seven regional championships and one sectional title, will always be remembered for the talent and memorable players that went through De La Salle, including big man Mike Williams, Eric Moore and the unforgettable and famed Niego brothers -- Charlie, Tom and Joe.
Now, with the talent in place sitting at Wabash and 35th Street, De La Salle is poised to end that sectional title drought -- and maybe more. Although schools like Hales Franciscan, Leo and Seton Academy have won small school state titles in Illinois, there hasn't been a Chicago Catholic League school to win a big school state championship since Mount Carmel in 1985. De La Salle has a chance to become the next.