This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sometime next March, the reality will hit home for Conner Toolson. Not every basketball season ends with a celebration.
Toolson and his Salt Lake Community College teammates enjoyed winning the 24-team NJCAA tournament Saturday night in Kansas. That achievement came three years after his Lone Peak High School team won a third straight state title and was awarded a national championship, with his church mission in between.
"I guess it's getting to be a little bit normal for me," Toolson said Monday. "But I know it's not normal."
Just making an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a huge breakthrough for Toolson's next program, Utah Valley University. Yet for those who wondered when the Lone Peak stars of this decade would make a national impact in college, it already happened. Toolson received the tournament MVP award after SLCC won five games in six days, ending with a 74-64 victory over host Hutchinson CC, as the freshman guard scored 28 points.
Because rankings determined it, Lone Peak's 2013 championship is labeled mythical. The Bruins' title is almost mystical. There's a story behind every championship year, and this is SLCC's how a talented team came together after losing five of seven games to end the regular season, and then suddenly ransacked everybody.
Reviewing the national tournament experience, coach Todd Phillips began by saying, "Didn't know if we were going to get there."
The Bruins finished third in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, their worst showing in five seasons under Phillips, who assisted Norm Parrish during SLCC's championship run in 2009. He wondered, "What went wrong with this team?"
The players figured it out during a pre-practice meeting one day, with Toolson describing the theme as, "We've got to change something, because this isn't working." The coaches rebuilt the team's confidence, and the Bruins made a resurgence.
A son of former BYU and Jazz guard Andy Toolson, Conner endured his own struggles this season. He fought through the physical challenges facing LDS returned missionaries and agonized about his future. The weekend when he committed to UVU, meaning he would skip his sophomore year at SLCC, Toolson went 3 of 15 from the field in two home losses.
The decision ultimately enabled him to relax and play so did becoming engaged and Toolson and the Bruins turned their season around. In the three-game conference tournament and a district playoff contest, they won four times by an average of 28 points. In Hutchinson, they beat five opponents by 18.8 points.
In '09, the Bruins came from 15 points down in the second half of the NJCAA championship game. This experience played out differently. SLCC was tested only twice during the week, each time after building a big lead. The No. 13-seeded Bruins held off No. 4 Odessa (Texas) College 92-86 in the round of 16. All of the other top-five seeds lost along the way; the tradeoff for SLCC was facing the host team in front of 6,000-plus fans in the championship game.
SLCC's pregame mantra: "Shush the crowd." Phillips may have wished a couple of players had not taken him so literally, with index fingers over their lips on the court, but he loved the environment and the way the Bruins responded under pressure. With an 18-point lead cut to four, Tyler Rawson delivered a jump shot to end Hutchinson's threat and punctuate his 16-point, 11-rebound game.
Oregon State star Gary Payton II, who played for the Bruins in 2012-14, illustrates Phillips' wide recruiting network. Yet Utahns have comprised the core of SLCC's two championship teams. Toolson, American Fork's Austin Waddoups and Rawson, Kearns' Bushmen Ebet and Viewmont's Gibson Johnson were five of the Bruins' top six scorers.
Parrish and former athletic director Norma Carr built a model junior college program "We're not a win-at-all-costs place; that's kind of her theory," Parrish once said and Phillips and Kevin Dustin, Carr's successor, have extended SLCC's success. The administration is supportive, with president Deneece Huftalin attending the championship game, and another national title validates the Bruins' approach to athletics.
The biggest question now is where to move the giant photo of the '09 team that adorns the wall in the Lifetime Activities Center to make room for a new picture. Toolson's having to deal with losing a basketball game in March also will become an issue. But amid the national championship glow, everybody involved is willing to tackle those problems, eventually.
SLCC's championship run
Seeded No. 13, Salt Lake Community College won five games in the NJCAA tournament at Hutchinson, Kan.
• SLCC 77, No. 20 NE Missouri 64
• SLCC 92, No. 4 Odessa (Texas) 86
• SLCC 105, No. 12 SW Tennessee 76
• SLCC 83, No. 8 Gillette (Wyo.) 47
• SLCC 74, No. 7 Hutchinson (Kan.) 64