By Joe Henricksen
De La Salle has won a lot of games over the past four years, averaging 22 wins a season in that time. But even with all those victories -- and the four consecutive regional championships and success in the Chicago Catholic League -- De La Salle still remains that talented team and program with many interested (and some skeptical) basketball eyes on them.
And what those eyes are waiting to see is whether the Meteors can take that next step and return De La Salle basketball to its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Coach Jerry Tokars led the Meteors to a Class AA third-place finish in 1977, took teams to the Elite Eight in 1979 and 1980, and captured four sectional championships in a seven-year period. But since that success 30 years ago, De La Salle is the Purdue of Illinois high school basketball -- plenty of program prominence and headlines but missing the exclamation point.
For De La Salle, getting past sectional play, through the supersectional and on to Peoria would do for its program what a long-awaited Final Four would do for Purdue, which has had plenty of Big Ten and NCAA Tournament success but no trips to college basketball's biggest stage under Gene Keady and Matt Painter.
Again, there has been great success. The last four years for De La Salle hoops has resulted in marquee games, national exposure and high-profile recruits. But locally, three sectional semifinal losses and one sectional title game defeat, falling to eventual state champion Whitney Young, 55-52, in 2009.
While 90 percent of the prep basketball programs in Illinois would trade places with De La Salle and the success it has had over the past four years, the Meteors understand the potential that is there. But that dreaded sectional round has certainly given De La Salle its share of fits. It doesn't help that the Meteors are in arguably the toughest sectional every year. And if things don't change, the sectional will once again feature two other top five teams in Whitney Young and Proviso East this March.
But winning a sectional title, which De La Salle hasn't done since the Tokars-coached team in 1983, is front and center among the players, coach Tom White and the Meteor fan base. They will all enjoy the ride over the next several months, but when the calendar turns March, all eyes will again be on De La Salle.
"That's been our focus every year, to get over that hump," says talented junior Alex Foster, who has played varsity since the day he walked into De La Salle as a freshman. "And once we get over that hump, it's going to be a big accomplishment and feel all that much better. I know it's going to be big for coach White when we do."
White is a realist and understands his program is at the point where it's ready (needs?) to shake the sectional bugaboo.
"We just have to play our best basketball and our best games down the stretch when it matters most," says White. "There are no excuses. We haven't done that in some of those sectional losses. But we have to get past that, get past that sectional hurdle, get to Peoria, because we really do want to play on the biggest stage."
"I think people think we are going to be down with Mike [Shaw] and Dre [Henley] graduating and Jaylon [Tate] transferring, so we feel like we have a lot to prove," says Foster.
While the notion that people think De La Salle "will be down," as Foster stated, is quite a stretch, there is some truth in that there are doubters who question whether De La Salle can take the next step. After all, if the Meteors couldn't do it last season with the school's all-time leading scorer, Mike Shaw, and veteran Dre Henley, along with a bunch of talented young players mixed in, when will it happen? And it sure didn't help matters when they lost the talented Tate, who figured to be a catalyst over the next two years but instead transferred to Simeon this past offseason.
Foster, however, believes. And he really believes this team is different. For De La Salle and its fan base, hopefully Foster is on to something.
"Our team is completely different," Foster pointed out when talking to the Hoops Report a few weeks prior to even the start of practice. "We haven't had the type of chemistry we have right now at any time during my first two years here. We are really close. And that carries over to the court. We are just extremely tight. Jaylon leaving was actually a real shocker. It still upsets me to this day, but what are you going to do?"
So while losing a talent like Tate is always a blow, the psyche of the team -- the togetherness, the rallying around something and developing a bond -- could carry the Meteors this winter.
"I do see that," says White of a budding camaraderie among his players. "They work hard and they have fun. You like what you see when it comes to chemistry with this group. There are no moods. They aren't worried about the touches they get. They just play."
Oh, and the talent isn't too shabby, either.
De La Salle was also the beneficiary of a move-in. Gavin Schilling, a promising 6-8 junior, moved back from Germany (he attended Loyola Academy as a freshman) and is among the Hoops Report's half dozen prospects in the Class of 2013. He's a high-major prospect who will team up with Foster to form an imposing frontline.
Plus, White will welcome back three juniors -- 6-3 Alvin Ellis and guards Marcus White and Demarcus Richardson -- who all have valuable varsity experience. And a breakthrough season from the long and athletic Ellis would be huge.
Add Tom White's son, 6-4 Josh White, the only senior on the team, and a good looking freshman in Martez Cameron, and there is -- once again -- enough pieces to break down that sectional wall.