Blood, Sweat and Happy Tears

In March, the men's basketball team brought home the college's first national championship. Here's the story behind that historic victory.

Shelton Williams-Dryden drives for the basket in a game against the Bryant & Stratton College Bobcats

Shelton Williams-Dryden drives for the basket in a game against the Bryant & Stratton College Bobcats

Running what seemed to be his millionth sprint on the burning sands of Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach under the broiling August sun, MATC student Mason Johnson wondered if it was all worth it.

Johnson was starting his third and final season on the MATC men’s basketball team, and the late summer preseason practices were taking their toll: His feet hurt, his legs were tired, his back ached.

For Johnson and the rest of the Stormers players, the 2022-23 season might have started in agony, but it ended in the ecstasy, elation and excitement about the college’s first national championship in basketball.

“It all comes back to the hard work at the beginning of the season,” said Johnson, who grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from Milwaukee Public Schools’ Golda Meir School. “The training at the beach, where we ran up hills, ran up and down stairs, did sprints on the sand: In the end, it all paid off.”

The payoff came in Danville, Illinois, on Saturday, March 25, when MATC beat Macomb Community College 86-65 to win the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II national championship. The Stormers won the most games in MATC history (32) and won the title as an underdog No. 7 seed — the highest seed to win the tournament.

“From the first day of conditioning and practice, we knew we had talent,” said Travis Mrozek, MATC’s assistant athletic director and associate men’s basketball coach. “The question always was will the talent we knew we had play together and be special like we knew they could.”

Storming out of the gate

In October 2022, the Stormers were ranked No. 5 in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll. The team played in a preseason tournament against Des Moines Area Community College, a perennially powerful team and a favorite to win the national championship.

“We stayed close with them for three quarters of the game,” Johnson said. “It was our very first game playing together, but we held it together. That’s when I knew we could win a championship.”

All along the way, we told the players they were writing their own story. And all along the way we asked them how did they want the story to end.

Travis Mrozek MATC's assistant athletic director and associate men's basketball coach

The Stormers went 9-1 in their first 10 games, scoring more than 97 points in six of those contests. After a one-point loss to John Wood University, the team rattled off another 11 straight wins, topping 100 points five times.

But a February 2 road trip to North Central Community College Conference (N4C) rival South Suburban College near Chicago ended in a humbling, 102-68 loss. It also became a crucial moment in the season. “We had to decide who we were,” Mrozek said.

Johnson covered his face with his hands when he remembered that game. “Not good,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t go into another game without knowing our opponent. We also knew we couldn’t overreact to one game. We knew we could recover.”

MATC regrouped and clinched its third straight N4C championship on February 20 by defeating Madison College, 87-68.

In the regular season finale on February 23, Johnson scored four points in the last 38 seconds to help the Stormers beat the Bryant & Stratton College Bobcats, 67-62, in the Bloechl Center at Mount Mary University, in front of a national audience who livestreamed the game on ESPN+.

“That was something special for the players,” Mrozek said. “We knew whatever happened in the rest of the season that they would have a special memory from MATC.”

Set for the second season

With the regular season completed, the Stormers headed to the NJCAA Region 4 playoffs at Rockford, Illinois. They beat Rock Valley College, avenging a regular season loss, to win the regional title and earn a spot in the national tournament.

“The Rock Valley game was key. I think that’s when we clicked and began to really play together,” Mrozek said.

At the national tournament, the Stormers won four games in five days: They beat No. 9 seeded Mott 83-68, upset No. 2 Niagara County 79-65 in the quarterfinals and defeated No. 6 Orange County 79-76 in the semifinals to reach the title game.

“All along the way, we told the players they were writing their own story,” Mrozek said. “And all along the way we asked them how did they want the story to end.”

In the title game against Macomb, Johnson scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Ke’Varius Taylor scored 20 points, while Mikale Stevenson added 17 points.

In MATC’s four wins, Johnson made 71% of his shots, averaged 20.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“I was at the tournament the year before and had a pretty bad experience,” Johnson said. “Everything is different down there. The vibe is different, the floor is different, the rims are hard. Being there once before made a huge difference. I was so much more prepared.”

Victory laps

At first, the Stormers weren't ready for the rush of emotion that came with hoisting the national championship trophy.

“It’s like climbing Mount Everest,” Mrozek recalled. “You do so much planning and so much preparing that when you get to the top, you just exhale in relief.”

Joy came soon enough. Players sang and cheered in the Danville locker room. Head coach Randy Casey danced. Back in Milwaukee, the college celebrated its champions on April 5 with a loud pep rally in the Student Center cafeteria.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley read a proclamation honoring the team, while Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore extended congratulations via video. The team was honored by the Milwaukee Bucks at their April 5 game against the Chicago Bulls at Fiserv Forum.

“Just looking at that trophy over and over, and I still can’t believe that it actually happened,” said Casey at the college rally. “It shows what can happen when you put in the hard work no matter where you’re at, no matter what circumstance might be in your way. It’s all about what hard work can achieve.”

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