Former New Canaan Rams basketball player Claude Chandonnet is headed to the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The 2015 NCHS grad and Rams captain is a freshman shooting guard for the Denison University Big Red, who stunned the D-3 basketball world this past weekend by defeating perennial conference powerhouses Wittenberg, Ohio Wesleyan and Wooster to win the North Coast Athletic Conference title for an automatic qualifier in the NCAA’s.
“At the start of the season we had meetings every week talking about what we were fighting for and what we wanted to leave for the season,” Chandonnet told NewCanaanite.com. “When the season started we decided we wanted to leave a legacy.”
And what a legacy it was.
After and up-and-down regular season that saw the Big Red go 14-11, Denison pulled off an 81-75 win over Wittenberg in the quarterfinals before matching up against Ohio Wesleyan, the top seed in the NCAC and the No. 10 ranked team in the country.
“Everyone on the team knew that once we beat Wittenberg there was no way we could to lose to Ohio Wesleyan,” Chandonnet said, despite the fact that the Big Red had dropped two games to the Bishops during the regular season. “Third time was the charm.”
Sure enough, Denison prevailed with an upset 95-85 win, setting up a championship matchup with No. 2 seed Wooster—a game the Big Red took in dramatic fashion, winning in overtime 92-81 to take the conference crown.
“At the end of the bench we were all just losing it, knowing that it could be the first time in 90 years we could win an NCAC championship,” Chandonnet said. “It was the craziest feeling ever.”
If there is one person in New Canaan who knows that feeling, it’s Chandonnet’s high school coach, Mike Evans. Having just finished his fourth season at the helm of the Rams, Evans was a star basketball player at Hamilton College where he played in two NCAA tourneys, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2003.
“It’s a great experience to have as a player just once in your career, let alone having it happen in your freshman year,” Evans said. “Claude deserves to win. He puts a lot of time into the game. He’s the best player in recent memory at New Canaan to graduate and he deserves to be on a winning team.”
One of the first things Chandonnet told Evans after the championship game was that by winning his 17th game with Denison, he now had more wins in one collegiate season than he did in four years at NCHS. Though with that said, Evans sees Denison’s big win on Saturday as a major victory for New Canaan hoops as well.
“For a kid to play at New Canaan and go on and be recognized at the college level is really special,” Evans said. “Claude got into Denison and wasn’t a recruit. He had to go out and prove himself. It’s not easy to play college basketball. It’s a year-round commitment even at Division 3 and to balance the academics at a school like Denison is another challenge that Claude is going to take on and learn about. But it’s just so big because the win-loss columns haven’t changed for us yet, but this is a win for us.”
And it’s a win that Chandonnet could not have experienced without the guidance of his former coach.
“Mike Evans was probably the main reason why I am where I am today,” Chandonnet said. “His time and effort that he put in to making me the player that I am. I made the decision that I wanted to play college basketball. It was a dream and I wanted to fulfill it. Sophomore year he sat down with me and had a meeting with me and my parents and just mapped out what it would take. And from that point on he was 100 percent behind me and prepared me as well as he could from everything he knew as a player. It was the best preparation I could ask for from a high school coach who was willing.”
Although Chandonnet’s playing time with the Big Red was limited to just two games this season, the experience of being part of a college basketball team—in what is arguably one of the toughest D-3 conferences in the country—has provided Chandonnet with intangible tools that will help him develop and succeed over the next three years on the court. More importantly, the lessons he’s learning as a member of a championship team will undoubtedly help him off the court in the years to come, long after his playing days are over.
“Claude doesn’t play much but it doesn’t matter to him,” Evans said. “He pushed his teammates to get better and play whatever role the coach asked him, and it’s paying off with this experience. If you put the time and work in, good things are going to happen.”
“If you have a passion in anything, let alone a sport like basketball in New Canaan or any town that’s not known for producing the best recruits, you just have to keep working” Chandonnet said. “Mike was a huge catalyst for me, saying ‘yes, you can do this’ and just having that backup and belief in you makes anything you really want possible.”
Denison will play Alma in the first round of the NCAA’s on March 4.