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BILL PLASCHKE

It's not rocket science, but it's a win for Caltech

School celebrates its first conference basketball victory since before the players were born.

February 23, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Caltech's Ryan Elmquist makes the winning free throw with three seconds left to give the Beavers a 46-45 conference victory over visiting Occidental College on Tuesday.
Caltech's Ryan Elmquist makes the winning free throw with three seconds… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

It was the last chance in the last game of the last basketball season Ryan Elmquist would ever experience, and the boy wonder wondered.

He recorded a perfect score on his ACT exam. He is graduating from Caltech this spring with a computer science degree. He has landed a job as a software engineer at Google.

But could he make a free throw? Could he make one unguarded shot to give the Caltech basketball team a victory that would end a 310-game conference losing streak stretched back 26 years?

"I had no idea," said Elmquist. "But I knew I would never be challenged with anything this athletically hard the rest of my life, so I knew I better do it now."

Easy as pi.

Elmquist sank the shot with 3.3 seconds remaining Tuesday night to give Caltech a 46-45 victory over Occidental, breaking one of the nation's most celebrated losing streaks and giving birth to the sort of sports bedlam that one would find only at curiously wonderful Caltech.

As several hundred howling fans swarmed the court in the tiny recreation center gym on Caltech's campus, freshman guard Todd Cramer was embraced by an older, distinguished-looking man.

"I thought, wait a minute, that's the school president, and he just rushed the court?" Cramer said. "How cool."

Mike Edwards, a sophomore guard, was given a strong high five by another familiar face.

"It was one of our Nobel Prize winners, and he was running around like we had just won a championship," Edwards said. "I was like, wow."

Indeed, school President Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau boogied, and Nobel laureate Dr. Robert Grubbs basked, and a day later their pompoms were still shaking.

Said Chameau: "When you're president of Caltech, you witness scientific breakthroughs, Mars landings, and any number of other memorable events. Storming the court with Nobel laureate Bob Grubbs will certainly rank high on my list of Caltech memories."

Added Grubbs: "Congratulations to the players.... They are true student-athletes."

If everyone was acting as if they had never seen their men's team win a game in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference … well, they haven't. Their last conference win was Jan. 23, 1985, before any of the current players were born.

During that span, Caltech brains have been able to change the world, yet they couldn't figure out how to win a basketball game against any of their seven SCIAC opponents representing 10 local NCAA Division III schools.

"It was like a shadow hanging over everything," sophomore guard Collin Murphy said.

The light broke through Tuesday night in the season's final contest when the Beavers amazingly scored the last nine points of the game and won despite making 25% of their shots.

Afterward, like their fans, the well-reasoned players turned giddy, one of them even getting his sports confused and bathing Oliver Eslinger in a football tradition. Yes, Eslinger became perhaps the first basketball coach in history to have a cooler of cold water dumped over his head.

Said Murphy: "I wondered why I was the only one doing it,"

Said Elmquist: "I thought, man, who is going to clean up that mess?"

The partying continued long into the night, with players failing to return to their homework after a weeknight game for the first time in many years. By the time the school held a midday media session Wednesday afternoon to trumpet its triumph, one player still had not been to class, and couldn't stop smiling about it.

"I wrote all my professors and told them I could not make it today because I was attending a basketball press conference," Elmquist said. "I could never in a million years imagine writing an e-mail like that."

Never in a million years, it seemed, could Caltech win a conference basketball game. With no cheerleaders, no pep band, and often no hope, Caltech's players have spent much of the last 26 years fighting solitary failure.

Some years, the team had players who never even played high school basketball. Some days, those players would fall asleep in practice after pulling all-night studying sessions. During at least one game several years ago, I witnessed a Caltech player doing his homework on the bench.

Opponents and their fans began piling on the insults, the worst ones found in visiting locker rooms, on the white grease boards that are usually filled with Xs and O's.

"We would get to the gym and see where the other team had put a math problem up there to taunt us," Elmquist said. "Of course we could solve the problem, but we never did. We wiped it right off and tried to focus on the game."

Yet the school has never dropped the sport because officials believe the struggles have served as an important part of an athlete's education. Before leaving campus to solve some of the world's mysteries, a Caltech men's basketball player is uniquely equipped to deal with the ones he cannot.

"It's never about winning or losing around here," said Julie Levesque, Caltech athletic director. "It's about learning from the process."

And if that process includes celebrating your first conference win in 26 years with a press party the next day that includes balloons and doughnuts and messy-haired nerds talking breathlessly about redeeming last chances, well, surely no national title celebration has ever felt sweeter.

Outside the gym after Tuesday's shindig, a groundskeeper was putting the finishing touches on a well-manicured baseball field.

Oh, yeah. The Caltech baseball team has suffered 412 consecutive SCIAC losses dating back to 1988, and 170 consecutive losses overall.

Fellas, you're up.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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