Jeff Christensen is on the verge of making history. And it could come this week.
If the Racine Lutheran High School boys basketball team defeats Prairie Tuesday at Prairie or St. Catherine’s Friday at Lutheran, Christensen will win his 500th career game.
He will become just the 29th high school boys coach in Wisconsin’s history to achieve that mark and the third from Racine County. The other two are from St. Catherine’s — Bob Letsch (661-250) and John McGuire (504-157).
“Nobody ever expects, I guess, to think you’re going to coach this long and be this successful,” said the 64-year-old Christensen, who took over Lutheran’s program in 1988. “But I’ve got to be honest with you. Being the coach of a high school basketball team is kind of like being the quarterback of a football team. I get a lot of credit when we win and I get a lot of blame when we lose.
“I’m getting all these accolades, but you and I both know it’s the players. You have to have players who are good and are buying into what you want to do. And over the years, I’ve had a lot of really good players.”
Christensen was asked to single out his most memorable games. He selected six, all but one of which he remembers with joy. His top six are not ranked in order of preference.
March 3, 1991
No Racine County boys basketball team had gone undefeated since St. Catherine’s in 1970-71. Lutheran joined that elite group on March 2, 1991, when the Crusaders edged Watertown Northwestern Prep 51-50 in the old Milwaukee Arena for the program’s first state championship.
Rudy Collum had made a free throw with 1:10 left to give Lutheran a 51-46 lead. The Crusaders then withstood a furious rally by Prep, which had entered the game with a 49-game winning streak and had defeated Lutheran in the 1990 state championship game.
Bob Hagen scored 18 points and Eugene Sims had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“We just hung on,” Christensen said. “Gene Sims was absolutely terrific for us defensively and Bob Hagen had 18 points and did a lot of good stuff. They (Watertown Prep) were a very talented team and for us to play as well as we did was really a credit to our kids.”
Nov. 24, 1990
When Lutheran went undefeated during that memorable 1990-91 season, it obviously had to handle some rugged competition. None was more rugged than St. Catherine’s, which would go on win Class A championships in the old private schools state tournament in 1992 and ‘93.
Before an estimated standing-room only crowd of 1,100 in Lutheran’s gymnasium, the Crusaders defeated St. Catherine’s 69-66. Bob Hagen made two free throws with 17 seconds left to give Lutheran that three-point advantage and then a 3-point attempt by St. Catherine’s Dwayne Gray fell short as time expired.
It was the first time Lutheran had defeated St. Catherine’s since it won 67-61 Dec. 19, 1953 on that very same floor. That was a stretch of 37 years or, more precisely, 13,490 days. Furthermore, that 1953 victory came 95 days before Christensen was born.
“St. Catherine’s was young, but they had Marcus West and Kevin Griffin as sophomores,” Christensen said. “It was nip and tuck and whole game and then Tim Porter hit a 3-pointer (to give Lutheran a 67-66 lead with 35 seconds left).
“Everybody was so excited because we hadn’t beaten them in so long and a lot of the years, we would just get blown out. For us to hang in there and play that good was really an accomplishment.”
March 17, 2012
This is the one clunker of the group. Lutheran was playing Sheboygan Area Lutheran in the WIAA Division 5 championship game at the Kohl Center in Madison. Racine had defeated Sheboygan 73-55 the previous Dec. 27, but Sheboygan was ready for the rematch. Plus, its star was Sam Dekker, who started for Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA championship game and is now a member of the Washington Wizards.
Racine was just 14 for 26 from the free-throw line in the rematch, including 13 for 20 in the second half. The left an opening for the 6-foot-7 Dekker, who made a deep 3-pointer in the final seconds to give Sheboygan a heart-stopping 67-66 victory.
The following day, Dekker’s spectacular shot was shown nationally on ESPN and can still be seen on youTube.
“I still haven’t watched the tape and I’m still somewhat sad over the whole situation,” Christensen said. “To his credit, Dekker scored 12 points in the last 50 seconds and we just didn’t do the things we needed to do to win the game.
“The better team did not win the game. That happens in sports. I’ve been on the other end of it, too. But it’s still a bitter pill to swallow. A lot of my former players that I’ve talked to haven’t watched the game either.”
March 6, 1998
First, Lutheran pulled off two miracle finishes in the private schools Division 2 regionals. That run continued with a 51-50 victory over Wausau Newman in the state semifinals in the Milwaukee Center Arena.
Kevin Hagen fired a full-court pass in the last seconds under the basket to David Welch, who laid in the shot at the buzzer after his first shot was blocked. “It’s almost unfathomable that those kids can continue coming back like they do,” an emotional Christensen said minutes after the game.
It was almost anticlimactic the following day when the Crusaders rolled to a 61-46 victory over Menasha St. Mary Central for their fourth state championship in eight seasons.
“David Welch leaked out and Kevin made a long pass to him,” Christensen said. “You see David going up and here comes one of their big guys and blocks it off the backboard. David grabs it and puts it in as the buzzer goes off to win the game. It was just incredible.”
A bonus for Christensen was that his son, Kevin, was a freshman starter on that team. Kevin would go on to become a long-time assistant for his father.
March 9, 2012
Sometimes, a performance borders on perfection and that’s what Christensen saw at Oconomowoc in a WIAA Division 5 sectional semifinal. Playing Randolph, which had won nine state championships under Bob Heffele and which had lost its four games going into that day by a combined 14 points, Lutheran dominated.
Lutheran, despite a distinct size disadvantage, outrebounded Randolph 34-22 and played suffocating defense in a 46-26 victory. That propelled the Crusaders into their first public schools state tournament at Madison.
“Their program was just so good that if you beat them, you really felt that you did something great,” Christensen said. “We just played tough, hard-nosed defense on them.”
Feb. 10, 2001
There has been no coach Christensen respected more than St. Catherine’s Bob Letsch. And when he could beat the Angels, especially with his son, Kevin, in the lineup, it was a special occasion.
That’s what happened when Kevin Christensen scored 25 points and found Andrew Bollmeier all alone for an easy basket in the final seconds for a 52-48 victory at Lutheran.
“Whenever you played St. Cat’s, you knew it was going to be a great game because Bob was a great coach,” Christensen said. “They were the standard-bearer to great basketball around here. If you could play with them, you had a chance to be pretty good.”