There was a point more than a month ago when Salisbury Christian head coach Dave Etling took Joey Choquette aside for a “heart-to-heart” talk.
During that time, Etling told the junior and third-year varsity player of the challenges that laid ahead for Choquette both as a basketball player and a team leader.
“I told him ‘Joe, you’re going to see box-and-1 for the next 39 games, you’re going to see defenses guard you tougher than you’ve seen before,’ ” Etling said. ” ‘It’s an opportunity for you to step up like you’ve never stepped up before, and you can do it.’ “
Those words sparked Choquette as he went on a torrid pace that started with a 27-point game in a loss against Worcester Prep and followed up by outputs of 40, 23, 37 and 43 — good enough for a 34-point average. Outside of that five-game span, the junior guard is averaging 22.5 points a game, 28 per contest against Eastern Shore Independent Athletic Conference opponents, which has helped the Jaguars to the regular season title for the second consecutive year.
Choquette’s strong campaign wasn’t unexpected, as he was one of three returning varsity players left from last year’s squad. Choquette, who was the only starter remaining from the previous team, worked hard to improve his game.
“I know I had to step up my game to help the team. Our team has really developed throughout the season, and I’ve put my faith in God and he’s strengthened me,” he said. “I’d have to say my decision making and my ball handling have really improved, and everything has come together so I could be more than just a shooter and more than just a point guard and passer.”
Etling has seen the strides made by Choquette through the years and said Choquette had the ability to start as a freshman, but he did not want to put unneeded pressure on him at the start.
“Joey has obviously shown that offensively he’s come a long, long way and is playing extremely well,” Etling said. “We definitely want to push guys in their character and their faith, and we want to bring them along at a good pace and we don’t want to overwhelm them. We want them to grow as times goes on.
“It’s about just seeing the team come together as one in the midst of that and watching guys individually, just making this a strong team and just being happy for Joey and his successes, but just reminding everybody that this is a team. If one guy gets hurt, or if one guys goes down or is not playing well or is in foul trouble, these guys come together and step up to the plate when they need to.”
More than just one
The Jaguars are truly far from a one-man show, growing into a cohesive unit in which each player follows the mantra of “next man up” as they have answered the call.
Etling attributes that to the work of assistant coach Kevin Colliton, who coached many of the varsity players the season before when they were on the junior varsity squad.
“We knew we needed to have a strong JV team last year and Kevin went down and coached the JV team, and those guys improved significantly,” he said. “So when they came up to varsity and Kevin came back with them, they had a connectedness, a teamwork, a camaraderie and they fit in well with the three returning varsity players.”
One of the newcomers is junior swingman Caleb Anderson, who has also played a large role on the team.
Anderson said the players have learned to play as a united front and with resiliency.
“I think the key to the success we have had has been a lot of teamwork and team bonding, because our team is really close together as friends off the court, too,” Anderson said. “It helps having a lot of chemistry on the court, and you can be honest with each other and be real. We all give it our hardest — even if we’re down, we’re a really good comeback team. We always give it our best effort and go 100 all the time. I think to when we were coming off a few losses from nonconference games and we came and played Holly Grove away. Our confidence was really low, but then we came out and we really played well as a team again, and everybody was playing well that game. Everybody contributed to that game.”
The team’s resiliency is not just limited to the mental aspects, but the physical as well, as displayed by guard Josh Smith, who has battled shoulder injuries throughout the year.
“I dislocated my shoulder in soccer season, so coming into basketball season it was not as strong as I hoped it would be, and I tweaked it against Delmar,” he said. “I had to sit out a couple of weeks. I just had to learn and protect it, and not go as aggressive left and maneuvering to the right. We had a few injuries, and it was about next man up. Whoever was injured or wasn’t feeling well, we stepped up in their place.”
“Get better every day”
With the ESIAC regular season crown already in their grasp, Salisbury Christian will look to win the conference tournament as well, starting with Thursday’s semifinal game against Delmarva Christian.
“We’ve met one of our first goals in winning the regular season league, but I say to these guys to win the championship and go to the Maryland State Championship Tournament,” Etling said. “In order to do that, we’ll just need to continue to get better every day.”
That will also include Choquette, as he not only continues his growth as a player, but as a person as well.
“The reason I really love is that Joey is the humblest kid,” Etling sad. “He’s a quiet leader, and walking down the street if you pass him by, you wouldn’t think he’d have the successes he has. A lot of people want him to succeed, and he’s on pace either this season or next to be a 1,000-point scorer. We’re just thankful for Joey for who he’s become and the kind of leader he’s become at the school and a leader in the community, with his character and his faith.”
With the 1,000-point milestone within reach and the performances he’s had this season, Choquette tries to look at a much bigger picture.
“There have been games (where I marveled at what I’ve done), but you have to stay humble,” Choquette said. “I don’t like to really look too much at how much I scored and what I’ve done — I look at the team stats. The ultimate goal is that we can come together and be the best team that we can be. In order to do that, we’ve got to come out focused and ready to play and give it our all. You just have to put in the hard work and trust in God.”
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