As Porter Moser’s Loyola program was grabbing national headlines and becoming the story of the college basketball world this past March, little known Triton College was marching through its own bracket to a 2017-2018 national championship.
That would be Triton College –– a local junior college basketball program in suburban River Grove that has won big for years under coach Steve Christiansen.
There was some nice local media exposure and recognition for Christiansen and his program during its recent run and immediately after.
The Triton team was recognized and honored on the field at both White Sox and Cubs games this spring. The Chicago City Council welcomed the team and acknowledged their accomplishments. There were numerous radio and television interviews, including local ABC and CBS news segments on Triton.
It’s attention and notoriety that doesn’t normally come to a school like Triton. But success shines a spotlight on and, more importantly, helps establish what is a growing reputation, both on and off the court at Triton. At the end of the day, the success –– and attention that comes with it –– is free advertising.
Academic institutions can be proud of academic success and graduates as well as athletic achievements; they aren’t mutually exclusive. Sports milestones energize every campus and are moments to be savored and for a college to use to its advantage. Athletic success can go hand-in-hand with success as an academic institution.
Triton’s Board of Trustees Chairman, Mark Stephens, understands that. He has seen and witnessed the benefits of the basketball program’s rise. The program’s success and, in particular, winning a national championship this past season, was impactful in many ways, Stephens says.
“We’ve been playing basketball at Triton for 50 years and it’s our first national championship, so of course this is great and exciting,” says Stephens. “But the most important thing is it shines such a positive light on Triton.”
Stephens believes the success only leads to a better “collegial atmosphere” and a better college experience. The success and the notoriety that comes with it may be able to open more doors as well, which leads to potential students in the Chicago area recognizing what’s in their backyard.
“Our academics are top-notch, our cost is reasonable,” Stephens proudly points out. “What something like this does is get the word out, lead us to people who may look and say, ‘Oh, yeah, Triton College. I’ll check that out.’”
The beauty of Triton’s success is that it truly is a terrific local story, albeit one that takes quite a bit to unearth.
Christiansen, who was named NABC National Coach of the Year, is a local. Born and raised in Hinckley, which is 16 miles west of Aurora, and a graduate of North Central College in Naperville, he began his college coaching career as Director of Basketball Operations at Northern Illinois under then head coach Rob Judson.
Christiansen took the Triton job in 2004 and in the introductory press release when hired, he boldly talked about “taking Triton College to the top of the junior college basketball ranks.”
He’s done just that.
Christiansen has built the program into something special in junior college basketball, culminating with this year’s national championship. He looks back at the process and how far the program has come and can’t help but feel pride, knowing there were so many people involved and so many pieces that came together.
“We didn’t win because I was the coach,” says Christiansen. “For us to win like that it takes an entire community. You can’t do it without everyone having a hand in it, from administration to admissions, from the financial aid people to the faculty.
“The most rewarding part of it all is seeing what it did and meant for all the people that helped us do it, including all the former players.”
With his strong ties and relationships established, Christiansen has feverishly recruited the Chicago area. Local products from the city and suburbs have been at the forefront. When it comes to recruiting, the locals have been the bread and butter.
Former Elgin star Courtese Cooper, who just recently signed with LSU, and Farragut product Deonta Terrell were a huge part of this national title team. North Lawndale’s Martrell Barnes, Downers Grove North’s Devin Blake and DePaul Prep’s Craig Atkins among others played key roles as well.
With the success, Triton’s recruiting reach has grown beyond the Chicago area. Last season guard Dante Thorpe who was originally from Washington, D.C., was a junior college All-American. Current freshman Alondes Williams, who is a bonafide Division I prospect after averaging 16 points a game, is from Milwaukee.
Under Christiansen, Triton has started to churn out scholarship players at the Division I and Division II levels.
“It’s heartwarming to see a guy who loves it that much, that puts that much into the student-athlete and who really cares about the kids and the school,” says Stephens of Christiansen. “Watching this all transpire really is the epitome of what you love to see in a team.”
The success and the overall numbers under Christiansen are pretty staggering. In 14 years as head coach, Christiansen has compiled a glitzy 367-96 overall record. In the past four seasons the Trojans have averaged 32 wins a season and gone a pretty ridiculous 130-14 in that time.
Triton was a national runner-up in the 2015-2016 season, losing in the title game, before breaking through this past season with the program’s first-ever national championship. And the program is currently riding an impressive 70-game home win streak.
Christiansen, the school’s all-time winningest coach, saw the potential in Triton as a potential junior college basketball power when he took over.
“I thought it was a hidden gem as a community college here locally,” says Christiansen of his impression of Triton when he took the job. “From the campus to the facilities to the academics, it was all there. But the key component is the people at Triton.”
With Triton as a national junior college power, the program is poised to take another big step. Next season, Triton will move to the junior college Division I ranks, a move Stephens and Christiansen both believe the school and program are ready to do.
“It’s important to reward success,” says Stephens, “so we are prepared to add additional resources to help sustain the success and prepare ourselves for that Division I level.”
The arrow is pointing up, for sure, at Triton –– for the basketball program and the school itself. There seems to be added commitment and a belief. Christiansen knows to take advantage of the positives that come with winning a national championship while continuing to push the program forward.
“It’s certainly helped build our brand and enhanced our recruiting efforts, but we aren’t done,” says Christiansen. “We now attack a new monster in going to the Division I level, and the goal is to have the same level of success.”
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport