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No method to Caltech madness

Smart students celebrate one of the things their school does worst

October 16, 2010|Bill Plaschke

As the tiny clock on the back wall of the crowded little gym struck midnight, the Caltech men's and women's basketball teams raced onto the floor to cheering students and a blaring pep band.

"Pep band?" asked senior center Ryan Elmquist. "Since when do we have a pep band?"

Since three days ago.

Turns out, a dozen musicians from around campus were collected for this event, and would disband immediately afterward.

"It's late, and I still have a paper to write," said flutist Annie Ritch.

For most other colleges, Midnight Madness is simply the title of the celebration surrounding the first official day of basketball practice. For Caltech, the home of this country's smartest kids and worst basketball teams, it is a literal description.

On Thursday at the Braun Gym, in the school's first attempt to copy the widespread tradition, it was pure madness.

A men's team that has not won a conference game in 25 years -- it is 0-297 during that time -- ran onto the floor accompanied by one cheerleader, the school's only cheerleader, and only on nights when he doesn't have a lot of homework. The overworked guy wore spiked orange hair, orange short-shorts, striped orange socks and an exhausted smile.

"Excuse me, but the correct term is 'Cheermaster,' " said senior Kyle Verdone. "I dress up like an idiot and dance, so I've earned it."

A women's team with a program record of 42-269 took the floor to wild cheers from a crowd of students, some of whom could have joined the squad on the spot. Four of this year's players, you see, have never even played high school basketball.

"I don't envy my coaching friends who have to play Connecticut and Tennessee," said Coach Sandra Marbut. "But they say it's tougher trying to recruit with my admissions standards.''

Madness was 531 kids, more than half the students, showing up to cheer for two teams that couldn't entertain them with the traditional dunk contest.

"We don't actually have a lot of people on our team who can dunk," explained sophomore Mike Edwards.

Madness was a free-throw shooting contest among students who threw up enough bricks to build a new campus library. One contestant shot three consecutive air balls. Another made free-throw hook shots on the run. Every rare success was met with a standing ovation. One of the winners made one.

"What can you say?" said men's assistant coach Jon-Michael Sanchez with a smile. "This is Caltech."

Madness was a basketball relay featuring students trying to dribble the length of the court in flip-flops, leather shoes, and some even barefooted, balls and bodies flying everywhere.

''We're scientists, not basketball players," reminded cheermaster Verdone.

Madness, finally, was a half-court shooting contest in which the winner received an autographed basketball with the signatures of five Nobel Prize winners, all of whom teach at Caltech. It could only happen here. Fittingly, while they struggled to make free throws, one of the students sank the Nobel shot.

"I remember seeing a night like this when I was at Georgia Tech," said Jean-Lou Chameau, the school's president. "This, I'd say, is a little different."

A little different. A lot cooler. Imagine celebrating the one thing your prestigious school does poorly. And imagine hundreds of students blowing off arguably the most difficult homework in the country to join that celebration.

It's easy to cheer when your team is Duke. It's harder to cheer when your team's operative word is "Duck!" The only thing that comes close to matching these Caltech kids' brains, it seems, is their backbone.

"This was amazing," said men's Coach Oliver Eslinger, who devised the Midnight Madness. "This shows the importance of community to these kids. This shows the optimism and belief in all of us."

There was a monetary bonus given to the residential house with the most students there, but it was hardly worth the academic toll.

"I know how hard it is for me to give pep talks after losing 50 straight games," Marbut said. "I can't imagine how hard it is for these kids to come out and cheer for a losing team, and then go pull an all-nighter."

It's so hard that attendance for the school's home game is usually around 50. The Beavers are a Division III school that plays in the eight-team Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference against the likes of Occidental, Whittier and Redlands. While those schools also have high academic standards, Redlands once beat the Caltech men's team by 98 points.

But things are looking up.

The women won seven games last year and the men, while coming off an 0-25 season, won a nonconference game two years ago against Polytech Institute of York University and actually believe their 25-year conference drought is about to end.

"It's going to happen, I can feel it happening, we never stop believing," said sweaty Elmquist, smiling like Kobe Bryant, jumping like Shannon Brown, the crowd cheering wildly for a guy who has won two games in his four years, the science geeks turning midnight into dawn.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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