RACINE — Of course, becoming just the 29th man in the history of boys high school basketball in Wisconsin to win 500 games was special to Jeff Christensen.
Yet, there was so much more than that for Christensen when he saw the Crusaders defeat Kenosha St. Joseph 75-46 Thursday night in Lutheran’s gymnasium.
His players played Christensen’s kind of basketball better than they had all year. Crisp passes. Suffocating defense. Minimal mental errors. All-out effort.
That’s what truly pushed it over the top for the 64-year-old Christensen.
“We haven’t played the style I wanted to, especially on defense, most of the season,” Christensen said. “But tonight, we not only did it on the defensive end, we did it on the offensive end.
“We were unselfish with the ball and we were throwing it to guys who usually don’t get that many points. Nathan Zawicki, a sophomore, in the first start of his career, he gets 16 points tonight and he stepped up defensively.
“It was a pleasure the way these kids played tonight.”
After leading 31-24 at halftime, Lutheran (7-9, 4-7 MCC) was all but unstoppable in the second half, outscoring St. Joseph (4-13, 2-10 MCC) 44-22.
Jackson Woodward added 15 points for the Crusaders and Colton Kraus and Brady Wilks each had 14.
The milestone victory came 11,039 days after he coached his first game at Lutheran — a 70-40 loss to Waterford on this same floor Nov. 18, 1988. But unlike that night, there was a festive mood in the air on this blustery cold February night.
Retired St. Catherine’s coach Bob Letsch, the second-winningest coach in state history, was in the house, as was Case girls coach Wally Booker. So were former players who included Brian Hagen, Tim and Ty Demuth and Al Smith. Christensen’s only son, former Lutheran All-State guard Kevin Christensen, was at his side as one of his assistants.
And when Lutheran’s inspired players finally got Christensen off No. 499, where he had been stuck since Jan. 11, there was wall-to-wall elation.
“We’ve been waiting a while for this win,” senior guard James Wilson said.
Numerous well wishers congratulated Christensen on the court. His wife, Bonnie, gave him a big hug. Loud cheers could be heard from outside Lutheran’s locker room. And afterward, Christensen and several others emerged with yellow T-shirts that read “500 Wins!” on the front and a list of his coaching accomplishments on the back.
History was made Thursday night. And his players were thrilled to be along for the ride.
“It’s amazing to be a part of history,” Kraus said. “My sophomore year, I was part of the 1,000th school win. And now to be a part of a second big win and a personal milestone for coach Christensen is just amazing.”
Christensen, a 1972 Lutheran graduate, was an old-school coach much in the mold of Letsch. He yelled at players, although it was never anything personal.
Kraus is one who came to understand that.
“At the time, it stinks because it seems like he’s just yelling at you and yelling at you,” Kraus said. “Then you come to appreciate afterwards that he’s actually just pushing you and he always wants the best from all his players.
“He just wants you to give your all all the time. He appreciates that and we appreciate him back for that.”
The Christensen Way has resulted in a 500-238 record, 11 conference championships, 13 regional championships, nine state appearances and four state championships. It would have been five state championships if not for a last-second 3-pointer by Sam Dekker, who now plays for the Washington Wizards, in the 2012 WIAA Division 5 championship game.
“He’s had success over the years not just with the wins, but the way his kids have played year in and year out,” St. Joseph coach Brandon Morris said. “Every year, regardless if he has the best talent in the state or he doesn’t have the best talent in the state, his kids are playing the right way. They’re giving it everything they’ve got.
“That’s how you get to 500 wins. The basketball world down here in Southeast Wisconsin respects him a ton.”
And now Christensen has earned his place among the very elite in state history. He becomes the third Racine County coach to reach 500 victories, following Letsch (661-250) and Letsch’s predecessor at St. Catherine’s, John McGuire (504-157).
“I coached tonight more like I used to — I was a little more excitable,” Christensen said. “I wanted this for myself, but I also wanted it for the kids.
“Kids think I’m just a mean old ogre. But I’m actually a pretty nice guy when you get right down to it and I love these kids.”