Foster: Verska, Danna reinstilled 'team' in De La Salle
Detroit – The meeting took place in front of The Shrine, a statue of the Blessed Mother that stands guard over Warren De La Salle High School.
It was supposed to be a quick, 15-minute, players-only meeting to iron out differences and get this football team focused again. De La Salle had just lost its third straight game and amid the losses was a lack of trust that puzzled and angered coach Paul Verska.
He could easily point out the lack of trust during film sessions. His pointed words hit the team hard and he broke down film along with egos. His meeting and film session lasted an hour. Then he and the coaches left and allowed the players to be alone.
They left the film room and gathered around The Shrine. It was just another meeting until senior captain Mike Danna stood up and talked. Once tears streamed down his face, the entire group had broken down.
Two hours later, the meeting finally broke up.
"He is a quiet leader," Verska said. "The kids goof around but when he says something, people stop and listen."
From that point on De La Salle (11-3) became a team again. It ripped off eight straight wins, including Friday's 44-8 demolition of Muskegon Mona Shores (12-2) in the Division 2 state football championship game. De La Salle outscored opponents, 257-79, in its eight straight wins and in the regional finals avenged a loss to two-time Division 2 champion Birmingham Brother Rice. The biggest changes were attitude and the return of Danna, who broke his foot in the season opener against Toledo Central Catholic.
"Who do we play for?"
That refrain was often heard during the meeting. Team captains spoke of their expectations. Young players who see more bench time than playing time told older teammates how special it was just to put on the purple and gold.
"It got emotional," said quarterback Joe Garbarino. "Just about everyone was crying. We knew we loved one another. This is the best group of kids I have ever been with. We started believing in each other. Once we got that, everyone began to work as one."
The Pilots also needed to be tougher. Heavy metal replaced rap in the dressing room . It made players believe they were tougher and could fly higher.
Before we get too far, though, let's examine the bad times. It wasn't like De La Salle was losing to bad teams. Its three losses were by a combined 15 points to Brother Rice, Orchard Lake St. Mary's and Dearborn Fordson, who were a combined 34-4. St. Mary's (11-2) is playing Muskegon (12-1) for the Division 3 title tonight. De La Salle ended Rice's 33-game win streak.
But there were other circumstances. Danna, an end, returned to lead a stingy defense with linebackers Ryan Smith, Mike Ostrowski and Eric Rogers.
It was a complete team effort Friday. The defense held Mona Shores to 99 yards rushing and 201 yards of total offense. Running back Allen Stritzinger not only rushed for 175 yards and a touchdown, but he blocked and locked down people on defense.
Garbarino, whose accuracy had been questioned, completed all seven of his passes for 89 yards and a touchdown.
And senior kicker Jake Townsley booted three field goals, including a 41-yarder with room to spare. He banged kickoffs into the end zone at will and showed versatility by sending a hard-to-handle squib kick as a change of pace.
De La Salle is not your typical Catholic League power. Their Verska is an old-school coach. This is his 13th season as head coach and Friday's win was the 100th of his career. He wants focus and concentration. His players like to dance in the snow and pull pranks. He calls them loosey-goosey and goofy.
"We all like to relax," Garbarino said. "Being loose before a game helps us."
The tears also helped. It took a day of soul-searching and bruising egos to bring this team together. But something else strange happened before the meeting. Even though he was upset with his team, Verska said that day De LaSalle was going to win the state title.
"They all looked at me like I was crazy," he said.
Now, everybody believes.