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'Three great ambassadors': Winston, Collins, Apap carry U-D Jesuit roots to MSU

February 20, 2020
<p>Cover by Genna Barner and State News staff</p>

Cover by Genna Barner and State News staff

Editor’s Note: State News reporter Brendan Gumbel attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.

You might have heard of Cassius Winston, the Big Ten’s all-time leader in assists and Michigan State’s relentless point guard. You might have heard of Elijah Collins, who burst onto the scene as the Spartan’s lead running back as a redshirt freshman this past season. And if you’re following the success of the MSU hockey team this year, you’ve definitely heard of Tommy Apap, an integral player and captain of the team.

All three of these players are prominent athletes in leadership roles at a high-profile, Big Ten school. But the similarities don’t end there.

The University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, which sits 80 miles from MSU’s campus, had Winston, class of 2016, Collins, of 2018 and Apap, of 2014, walk its halls and represent the maroon and white in their respective sports. The trio still holds their time as Cubs in high regard, and said it helped mold their success as Division I athletes.

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“It’s a great school, great environment,” Winston said. “All the people there get along. All the people there are challenging each other, pushing each other to be the best. Whether it’s in the classroom or in athletics, so you just learn a lot going to school there.”

Student athletes at U-D Jesuit — founded in 1877 — compete in the Detroit Catholic High School League.

“When I think about what makes us special, I think that we’re a unique school where the expectations for academics at our school are really the same — if not stronger than — our athletic expectations,” U-D Jesuit Athletic Director Nick Kocsis said. “We’ve got the highest possible academic expectations for our guys, yet we play in a league where you’re playing against schools where athletics is just, they’re the top of the heap. We’re expected to compete at that highest level athletically, but not compromise academically.”

It was apparent that Winston was going to be special right out of the gate, averaging 17 points and 7.5 assists as a freshman on the varsity team. As Winston got older and his game continued to elevate, he began to establish himself as one of the premier point guards in the country. In his final year at the high school, Winston led the Cubs to a perfect 28-0 season and a state championship win at his future home — the Breslin Center.

After winning Mr. Basketball for the state of Michigan in 2016, Winston chose to play for coach Tom Izzo at MSU, turning down an offer from rival Michigan. Now, in the midst of his senior season at MSU, Winston said he is proud to see the representation of his alma mater leading the way for the green and white.

“It’s great to have U-D put on the map a little bit here,” Winston said. “Especially with such successful players and people that are doing their thing, so it’s great to see that.”

Collins was a multi-sport athlete at U-D, excelling in both football and basketball for the Cubs. Although he was a teammate of Winston’s on the 2016 state championship basketball team, football ended up being Collins’ calling card. After sitting out his sophomore year, Collins joined the team his junior year and started compiling a hefty amount of DI offers. His averages of 119.6 rushing yards per game and 8 yards per carry led to him being ranked as the highest-rated running back prospect in the state of Michigan, according to The Detroit News.

“Elijah might be the fiercest competitor I’ve ever been around in high school sports,” Kocsis said. “And you would never know it. He’s quiet, (but) he’s confident.”

U-D Jesuit basketball coach Pat Donnelly, who coached both Winston and Collins in high school, cites their knowledge of the game and careful preparation as driving forces in the duo’s dominance on the court and field. 

“A thirst to understand the game better,” Donnelly said, when asked about Winston and Collins’ best attributes. “I know that Cassius had an unbelievable basketball IQ, and that has continued to develop in his time at Michigan State, so it’s made him an even better player. I know that Elijah had a thirst for that too on the basketball court and also on the football field. If you spoke to him, he’d tell you his year last year as a redshirt allowed him to become a better student of the game — which prepared him to be a better player once he got the opportunities on the field.”

Of the three alumni, Apap took the most unconventional route to MSU. Most American-born hockey players that end up playing at a college level come from high-level travel teams or AAA programs. Apap went against the grain, sticking with U-D’s hockey program and developing his game under coach Rick Bennetts.

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“We noticed the first time we ever saw him — between eighth and ninth grade — that he just had a sense on the ice that you can’t teach,” Bennetts said. “He had vision, he had high skill level and his work ethic was infectious to everybody around him. He’s just a quiet leader and a problem solver.”

By the time Apap was a senior, scouts were piling into games to watch him — and they were in awe at how far he had come. Collecting 63 points in just 29 games during his final season, Apap proved he belonged at the next level.

“(Scouts) couldn’t believe that he wasn’t a high-level, tier one, AAA player,” Bennetts said. “They said, ‘Where’d he come from?’ And I just said, ‘Well, he came out of our JV program.’”

Apap went on to play for several years at the junior level before starting up at MSU in 2017. He was named a captain prior to this season and is trying to help navigate the team to their first NCAA tournament bid since 2012.

“U-D prepared me, because it’s such a team aspect,” Apap said. “It’s a lot different than juniors. Like at U-D you’re trying to win every game and in juniors, guys are more thinking about individual stats — thinking about themselves. At U-D we wanted to win every game. We’d get up for games like Cranbrook and Brother Rice. That’s what we try to do (at MSU) too. It’s not individual, it’s a team thing.”

Bennetts said Apap dedicates a good chunk of his summer to helping run U-D’s summer hockey program with other Cub alumni. 

The team is busy during the offseason — taking part in a strength and conditioning program at the high school early in the morning, heading to the rink for practice afterward and occasionally having a game on the same night. Bennetts said he appreciates the help and knows his current players will benefit from having someone of Apap’s caliber there to help.

“He’s still the same person,” Bennetts said. “His game has elevated, his size has increased ... if I send him an email or a text ... he responds faster than my family does. It doesn’t matter where he is or what he’s doing, he’s still the same person he was when he was that little 13-year-old working his way into the high school.”

Still the same person. The same can be said for Winston and Collins who, despite their success, are humble leaders who put the team first.

“I look at Cassius and all the personal accolades that he’s had,” Donnelly said. “You don’t see him as a guy that’s touting himself. It’s all about the team, it’s all about the success of his team.”

Above all else, the trio remains involved with and connected to the school, coming back for games and workouts with current teams. Their impact during their time as students has left a mark on U-D, which isn’t something Collins takes lightly.

“It’s powerful,” Collins said. “It gives you another sense that what you’re doing actually matters. Things that we did at U-D — we’ll keep doing as long as we live. Things that I learned at U-D are things that I want to teach my kids.” 

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In the past four years, U-D athletic teams have stockpiled 12 Michigan High School Athletic Association, or MHSAA, District Titles, 12 MHSAA Final Four Appearances and 2 MHSAA State Championships to go along with a total of 33 Academic All-State Team Honors, according to the school’s athletics website. 

Collins said he credits his alma mater for making his transition to college athletics smoother, as he was already prepared for a lot of what came his way after arriving in East Lansing.

“We take it pretty seriously as far as sports go (at U-D),” Collins said. “We kind of treat it like college in high school, so that when we get here we’re a little more prepared than what we were before.”

Donnelly expressed his pride in all three programs.

“Name another school that has three guys in prominent positions on big revenue sports ... that came from one school,” he said.

He also talked about these players’ impact from an admissions standpoint.

“I can’t tell you, over the last six years, how many times I’ve gone to an admissions event and people haven’t mentioned Cassius’ name,” Donnelly said. “And now when we talk about football, people bring up Elijah’s name. Same thing with Tommy.”

At the end of the day, Kocsis said he hopes kids thinking about attending the high school can look to one of those three athletes and see glimpses of themselves. Not just in how they perform athletically, but in how much they value academics and the manner in which they conduct themselves. 

“It wasn’t that long ago where a highly athletic kid would look at U-D Jesuit and say, ‘I’d love to go there, but it’s just too tough,’” Kocsis said. “(Now), when you have three men that came out of the same high school and are at the same college in positions of leadership ... I want every kid who is serious about athletics and academics and their total formation to be like, ‘That’s the school for me.’ They’re three great ambassadors.”

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