At first glance, it doesn’t seem possible. Considering the staggering amount of talent DeLaSalle has lost to graduation since the beginning of its current run of four consecutive Class 3A championships, a fifth seems like nothing more the wishful thinking.
Reid Travis, gone to Stanford. Jarvis Johnson to Minnesota, before a heart condition sidelined him permanently. Sacar Anim to Marquette. Josh Collins and Geno Crandall to North Dakota. Many others playing key roles at smaller schools.
Yet here they are, an almost brand-new group of Islanders, revving their engines and fully expecting to become the first team in Minnesota history to win five straight.
“There’s never been a team to do that,” DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson said.
The talent is good but green. Only three players remain from last season’s varsity roster: Sophomore guard Gabe Kalschuer, the leading scorer with the textbook jump shot; junior Goanar Mar, a 6-6 wing and matchup nightmare on the perimeter, and senior Samm Jones, the defensive blast furnace, radiating ball-hawking heat in all directions.
Everyone else — C.J. Dickson and Dominic Bledsoe and Will Irvin and Austin McGeheran among them — have scant varsity experience, if any at all.
Most other schools would consider this a year to rebuild. But the Islanders’ success is not based solely on playbooks or schemes or run-and-gun talent (although it doesn’t hurt). It’s about history at a 115-year-old Catholic school, fittingly located on Nicollet Island, itself steeped in the past.
“I’ve been here 21 years,” said Thorson, who has coached seven of DeLaSalle’s nine state championship teams. “This program is bigger than me or any one person. It’s about tradition.
‘‘Once you’ve played basketball at DeLaSalle, you’re part of family that goes back to the 1940s and ’50s. We’re grounded in faith and tradition and that’s a very powerful thing.”
Teddy Archer was a member of DeLaSalle’s 2006 Class 3A champions, one of four core players, along with Jamar Diggs, Joe Scott and Cameron Rundles, who called themselves the Four Horsemen. Archer, now an agent who represents local basketball players playing professionally overseas, said his affection for DeLaSalle has grown since graduating in 2006.
“It gets better and better,” he said. “We didn’t have the best facilities. All we had was tradition. Thorson has been able to create a wealth of something that isn’t tangible. We had human capital, and it’s what they still have today.”
Archer said he’s out of the country about five months of the year attending to his clients, which includes Rundles (playing in Latvia); Scott (Germany) and Diggs (Romania), yet he still makes time to get to DeLaSalle games when he can.
“When we all get back together,” Archer said of his former teammates, “we still have that bond. Winning wouldn’t be sustainable if guys were about themselves. It’s about the front of the jersey. That preserves the success.”
When Goanar Mar moved from Mankato to suburban Minneapolis two years ago, his only real knowledge of DeLaSalle came from basketball. He found out being an Islander meant much more.
“Quite a few things stood out,” Mar said. “It’s faith-based, which was important. I felt comfortable there. And I knew Thor [Coach Thorson] would push me, make me better.”
It wasn’t until he’d been a member of the team for a while that the breadth of the basketball brotherhood hit him.
“Last year, after our state championship, I couldn’t count how many alumni came out to see us and how many were watching, even overseas,” Mar said. “People knew my name even if I had never met them. When you put on that jersey, you make that connection to something much bigger.”
Samm Jones grew up a DeLaSalle fan, attending basketball camps there in the summer. He dreamed of putting on the jersey and knew exactly what it took to play there.
“It’s about making the effort, giving everything you’ve got for the team,” Jones said. “There are so many players who would kill to play here. Wasting that opportunity is not the Islander way.”
The Islander way
Two times a week, the team practices at 6 a.m. before school starts. Academics are a priority.
“Coach is always on us about academics,” Mar said. “If you’re not taking care of business off the court, you won’t be on the court.”
Playing for DeLaSalle, “I was a little surprised at how intense it was,” said Kalscheur, who lives in Edina. “Waking up at 5:15 was an eye-opener. The school part was a little harder than I expected. But now I’m used to it and I like it this way.”
Thorson often arrives at the school by 5 a.m., preparing for practice before spending his day as the school’s director of development. On the court, he explodes with energy, imploring his team, working the officials and rarely sitting down. He’s the James Brown of local basketball: the hardest-working man in the business.
“He puts 100 percent into us,” Kalscheur said. “It makes you give more than 100 percent.”
Winning a fifth
Rather than avoid the subject of winning title No. 5, Thorson has embraced it.
“I’ve talked about winning the championship more this year than the previous four,” Thorson said. “But you need to have that laser-focus intensity to get better every day. It’s a process. We pay attention the details. I get the toughest schedule possible to prepare us. By the end of the season, there isn’t anything we haven’t seen.”
That usually means DeLaSalle takes some lumps early. They lost two of their first three games this season, to Atascocita (Texas) and Class 4A power Champlin Park. Such early losses also happened last season, which ended in a fourth straight state title.
And there’s always a smattering of critics who call for DeLaSalle to move up to 4A. But it’s not Thorson’s call alone.
“The president [of the school], the athletic director and I have had a couple of conversations about it,” Thorson said. “We’re not a big 3A school. The administrative team feels we’ve chosen the best path for the kids.”
Regardless of size, are a lot of people believe DeLaSalle doesn’t have the firepower to win it all again this year.
“People are doubting us,” Kalscheur said. “But we have every other DeLaSalle team behind us. We’re going to shock the world, or at least the state of Minnesota, and make history.”