The hero of Caltech's first conference victory in 26 years admits he's been tempted to give up on basketball a handful of times.
"There have definitely been nights where I was up all night doing a midterm or a problem set and then I'd have a game or practice the next day on no sleep," senior Ryan Elmquist said by phone. "A lot of times you don't feel like playing at all, but you find a way to motivate yourself to do it."
All the sleepless nights and energy drink-fueled workouts became worthwhile Tuesday night when Elmquist tasted victory in what very likely will be his final competitive basketball game. The 6-foot-5 forward sank the go-ahead free throw with three seconds left to lift Caltech to a 46-45 victory over Occidental College, snapping a 310-game losing streak in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The victory touched off a wild celebration on a campus where students typically only rejoice like that after acing a midterm. Students and alumni rushed the court, players dumped a bucket of water on third-year coach Oliver Eslinger and the PA announcer screamed "Ladies and gentleman, the losing streak that began in 1985 has just been ended tonight!"
"It was pretty cool seeing the campus come together like that," Elmquist said. "Usually on a Tuesday night everyone would be studying and doing homework, so seeing everybody hanging out with the team and celebrating was pretty awesome. Normally that would only happen for something academic and not athletic."
Even though academics were the biggest reason Elmquist opted to attend Caltech, the Minnesota resident said the opportunity to continue playing basketball was also a big reason he came out West. Elmquist played basketball all four years at Woodbury High School, helping his team reach the Minnesota 5A state basketball tournament as a senior with a record of 25-5.
When Eslinger was hired at Caltech in fall 2008, he immediately put the team through a rigorous first practice in order to gauge the conditioning of his players. Most of the team was thoroughly exhausted after all the sprints, but Elmquist concluded practice with a 360 dunk before he put the ball on the rack.
"Ryan, we didn't work you hard enough?" Eslinger asked.
"Guess not," a smiling Elmquist responded.
The coach and player had a similar exchange a week later once Eslinger realized that the sophomore had the potential to be an impact player.
"I told Ryan if he wanted to be, he could be the best player to ever play here," Eslinger recalled. "He smiled again and said, 'Thank You.' He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever talk to. Besides being brilliant and being successful academically, he's really had quite a career here."
Elmquist averaged a team-high 15.8 points per game this season and leaves Caltech as the school's second-leading career scorer, but the path he took to achieve those feats is unique in college basketball.
Whereas top players at other programs seek out less demanding majors, Elmquist has a 3.5 GPA in computer science. Whereas top players in other programs spend their summers training and going to camps, Elmquist conducted advanced chemistry and math research and interned at Apple. And whereas top players at other programs pursue professional basketball once they graduate, Elmquist will work for Google as a computer software engineer.
Elmquist had set a goal of breaking the conference losing streak before he left Caltech, so he approached Tuesday's game with steely focus knowing that it was his final chance. He scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked four shots, and went 15 for 19 from the free-throw line, ending a futility-filled career with a historic triumph.
Though he admits he was nervous when he went to the foul line with a chance to win the game, Elmquist said he blocked out the pressure just enough to sink the first free throw to provide the final margin. The victory only elevated Caltech's overall record to 5-20, but that won't diminish Elmquist's sense of accomplishment.
"This was my last game ever," he said. "I can't picture a better storybook ending."