|John Krikorian and his program have climbed the ladder one rung at a time, from Elite Eight to Final Four to national champions.
Photo by Doug Sasse, d3photography.com
By Ryan Scott
FORT WAYNE, Indiana — A national championship is the pinnacle of any coaching career. Christopher Newport men’s basketball head coach John Krikorian had two previous chances and finally cut down the nets in 2023 with a thrilling 74-72 last-second victory over Mount Union.
Yet he says: “I’ve not in one year in my coaching career, which is 25 years long now, cared less about me in this process. Honestly, this group is different. They love to play and I’m just trying to figure out a way to help them achieve what they want to.”
Achieve they have. With this victory, the Captains have done something no other previous iteration has been able to accomplish: winning the final game and coming home with the trophy.
It means a lot to these players, not only to win one for themselves and their coach, but to continue and expand the legacy of excellence that has epitomized Christopher Newport basketball for so long. Ty Henderson’s father, Donte, played at CNU in the ’90s and the history is very present for the entire team.
“I talked to a lot of the alumni,” says leading scorer Jahn Hines. “It’s always been bigger than basketball. We are bringing it home for the alumni, for the city of Newport News, for Christopher Newport, it’s amazing.”
Krikorian also appreciates his place in the long history of CNU basketball. “Bev Vaughan was the first coach at Christopher Newport. He texted me and said, ‘I’ll be sitting on the bench with you. The coach that hired me was CJ Woollum. To be at the helm with a lot of the guys who built this thing is incredibly meaningful.”
That understanding of mission and team has always fueled Krikorian’s team, but this year’s squad took it to a new level. Nine guys played in the championship game and each one of them had a rebound.
“It’s amazing to have such depth on our team,” says Hines. “When they take away one or two players, we have three more. It’s hard to guard that. It takes pressure off me and Trey, because our guys can get a bucket or make a big stop. I trust my teammates and it gives me more confidence.”
Krikorian notes that this team required different things from him, as a coach. “A lot of other years, I’ve got 20 different plays and sets and all these defenses and we’re making lots of adjustments. This is just not that team. They need space and they’re willing to defend. There’s very little coaching that goes on during a game.”
The team needs little coaching, because they are loaded with talent and experience. The big names, Hines, and Trey Barber, will be back for at least another season, but they’re supported by a bunch of fourth and fifth year players.
Rodney Graves was a four-year player and AMCC Player of the Year at Medaille before transferring for a grad season. Matthew Brodie played a year at Division I James Madison before coming in to be Krikorian’s swiss army knife — providing scoring, defense, size, and speed — whatever’s called for in a given game. Ian Anderson and Jake Latte are four-year players who provide size and versatility off the bench.
That deep bench has propelled CNU to a title, but it’s also helped to foster the relationships so vital to success. Not only do they love each other, these guys really love basketball. Krikorian talks admiringly about having to chase the guys out of the gym after practice. During the tournament, they’ve also insisted on doing their own scouting.
“Typically, if we play the first game, we watch the first half of the second game and then we leave. The assistant coaches will take care of the scout. When we were at Hampden-Sydney, it was halftime of the second game and I said, ‘let’s go get on the bus,’ and the guys said, ‘coach, can we stay?’ I didn’t want to, but we stayed. Same for last night. They wanted to stay. They’re invested in this process.”
This makes the game prep easy, but Christopher Newport isn’t doing a lot of detail work this year. Adds Krikorian, “When you have two or three really elite players that love to play, you just say, ‘give it to Jahn’ or ‘it might be a good idea to throw it in to Trey Barber.’ I just have to keep them on track.”
In 2023, they reached the finish line, propelled by Hines and Barber, but not dominated by them. CNU is the epitome of team basketball — a hallmark of Krikorian’s career — he creates a tough, but loving atmosphere, where basketball is serious business, but the relationships are full of support.
“I’m very comfortable with who I am as a person and as a coach and those can be two different things. I’ve always had the approach that between the lines, this is my life’s work, these guys are counting on me to give them my very, very best. In a lot of ways I do treat it like a battle. I have no problem, as soon as I step off the court, it’s over.”
He continued, “I just want them to win for them. They’re not playing for me, they’re playing for them. They’re the ones that put in this crazy amount of work every day.”
Every competitive Division III works hard and Krikorian knows more than most that hard work isn’t everything — you can do everything right and still fall short. He’s done that twice before.
“I do think being in these experiences more often, you don’t take it for granted, but these are familiar surroundings. It’s going to be fine. Those first years, you spent so much time worrying about the little details. Having done it a few times, you try to be cool about the whole thing, rather than worrying. You only have so much energy as a coach, you want to invest it in them and in the game and not all this other stuff.”
His players clearly love Krikorian and give him all the credit for their success,
Brodie notes: “The biggest thing he brings to us as a group is that he allows us to be ourselves on the court. It’s a hard job as a coach to get everyone to play as one and he does a really good job of that, but the biggest thing is that he doesn’t put labels on us as players, he lets us do what we have to do .”
What they had to do was overcome the most talented, relentless runners-up in Division III history. Mount Union made every bucket tough and hit a ton of big ones themselves. The 2023 championship was every bit the battle Krikorian expected it to be, and his team came out on top.
Regardless of who gets the accolades, the Captains finally have the trophy.