Viva, Valparaiso College basketball: It was cold yesterday in Valparaiso, Ind., but temperatures soared when the Sweet 16-bound Crusaders arrived back on campus.

March 17, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- There's barely a breeze outside the Valparaiso Athletics-Recreation Center, making the 35-degree temperatures on campus somewhat tolerable. Still, Paul Sawyer has to be cold, standing on the bed of a pickup truck with "No. 1" painted on his bare chest.

"It feels great. I'm just out here waiting to greet my team," said Sawyer, an Arizona native, who was taking a break from classes at Valparaiso just after noon yesterday. "I'll be out here as long as I have to. The cold? I don't feel it. I guess I'm going on adrenalin."

Adrenalin? This entire town of 26,000 in northwestern Indiana (not Illinois, as it has been mistakenly reported) overdosed on adrenalin this weekend as the 13th-seeded Crusaders, champions of the Mid-Continent Conference, knocked off Mississippi and Florida State to advance to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

With the conclusion of spring break, yesterday was supposed to be the first day back to class for students at this Lutheran school with an enrollment of 3,600.

Yet when the team bus pulled up to the recreation center just before 3 p.m. -- the shirtless guys resurfaced after demonstrating their intelligence by disappearing for about an hour -- students were out in force among the crowd of about 1,500 jamming Union Street.

It was a scene somewhat reminiscent of Coppin State last year, when the tiny West Baltimore school upset second-seeded South Carolina in the first round before losing by a point to Texas in the second round.

This is Valparaiso's third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, though it's the first time the Crusaders have advanced past the first round. Two years ago, they lost by 49 to Arizona; last year, they lost to Boston College by seven.

How has Valparaiso done it this time around? On Friday, it took luck, with Bryce Drew -- son of coach Homer Drew -- hitting a miraculous three-pointer at the buzzer on a play called "Pacer" to beat Mississippi by one.

On Sunday, the Crusaders got tough and nasty in beating Florida State, becoming only the second No. 13 seed to reach the Sweet 16, joining Richmond's 1988 team.

"I watched Sunday's game on campus and everyone was just screaming and holding each other. It was actually quite beautiful," said Kirsten Smith, a senior from Kansas City, Mo.

"I'm actually quite hopeful now because when I graduate in May and send my resume out, everyone will hopefully recognize Valpo."

When the students who live on campus awoke yesterday, they had voice mail awaiting them, inviting them to greet the team outside the arena.

By 11 a.m., phones were ringing off the hook in the athletic department with calls from people seeking tickets to Midwest Regional games in St. Louis, where Valparaiso will play fellow upstart Rhode Island on Friday night.

Down the hall in the Athletics-Recreation Center (ARC), where a rally was scheduled, chairs were assembled at center court in a half circle. And outside the front entrance hung an official NCAA first- and second-round banner from Oklahoma City.

"I kind of borrowed it from a hotel," said Andy Hollenbeck, a resident of Valparaiso kind enough to allow the school to make use of the banner. Then, with a wink, he added, "I'll be shipping it right back to the hotel as soon as the event is over."

By 2: 15 p.m. -- 45 minutes after the team's expected arrival -- the restless crowd engaged in a massive snowball (and, in some cases, iceball) fight.

By 2: 25, there was a mad scramble to move the chairs from center court of the ARC to the adjacent Hilltop Gymnasium (built in 1939), making room for an acrobatics competition previously scheduled at the ARC.

There was a bold attempt by police to clear the street before the bus' arrival, an attempt that was received about as well as a Shaquille O'Neal movie at the box office. Finally, at about 2: 51 p.m., the crowd erupted in a loud roar as the bus appeared in the distance.

Inside the bus, the players, still groggy from a 5 a.m. wake-up call and flights that took them from Oklahoma City to Denver to Chicago, were amazed at the mass of people that had gathered.

"Everybody was hazy, creepy and cranky," said forward Bill Jenkins, who plays alongside his twin brother, Bob.

"And as soon as we pulled up, it was like the loudest alarm clock you could ever have. It was the most excitement I've ever had at the university."

The bus, traveling with a police escort, never made it to the building. It was mobbed by the crowd perhaps 100 yards from the entrance.

It took nearly 10 minutes just to get the front door open, and, as the players filed out -- led by coach Homer Drew, who did `D everything but kiss babies -- they marched into the building, each and every one wearing a wide grin.

The setting for the rally in the old Hilltop facility was appropriate, reminiscent of the movie "Hoosiers" (which, by the way, the team watched clips of just prior to the Mississippi game).

"You guys are the greatest," one of the Jenkins brothers -- standing side-by-side, you really couldn't tell which was which -- said during the rally.

"You just don't know the feeling to get off the bus and see all of you. No one gave us a chance. You guys gave us a chance. And we're all appreciative of it."

Then the other Jenkins brother grabbed the microphone and said, "We're telling you, it's not time for Cinderella to go home yet."

The crowd then began to chant "Final Four! Final Four!" cheering for its own "Hoosiers" story to extend beyond this weekend.

Making history

Valparaiso is the largest Lutheran college in America, but it joins St. Joseph's as the smallest school (3,600 enrolled) to make it to the Sweet 16.

Namesake city in Indiana -- located between Chicago and South Bend, Ind. -- has a population of 26,000.

If Valparaiso makes the Final Four, it would be lowest-seeded team ever, supplanting Louisiana State (No. 11 in 1986).

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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