Valparaiso Takes Country by Storm
VALPARAISO, Ind. (AP) _ Talk about jumping on the bandwagon.
Steve Menis started out with one buddy beside him in his blue-and-white pickup truck and a ``Go VU!″ sign on the grille. They drove through the Valparaiso campus Monday, honking the horn, howling and stopping to pick up anyone who wanted a ride.
It seemed everyone wanted to get in on the celebration of tiny Valparaiso’s magical run toward the regional semifinals.
By the time the Crusaders rolled into campus, the back of Menis’ truck was full, stereo speakers were blaring from atop the cab, and some of the guys in back had stripped off their shirts and painted their chests. About 1,500 people danced in the street in front of them. One student even clutched a sign touting coach Homer Drew for president.
It took five minutes to clear the crowd and get the door open. As the players got off, they slapped hands with anyone who could get a hand near them.
``We’re a small team with big dreams. It’s a Cinderella story,″ said Joel Guinane, a senior from Milwaukee and Menis’ first passenger. ``I can’t believe we’ve done it yet.″
Believe it, Valparaiso fans. And that’s Val-puh-RAISE-oh, not Val-puh-RISE-oh.
Better learn how to pronounce it, because the tiny school (3,500 students) in northwest Indiana _ 55 miles southeast of Chicago _ with a feel-good father-son story is the talk of the NCAA tournament.
Rhode Island? No problem. People are already thinking Final Four.
``In the Cinderella story, the clock struck midnight,″ said Aaron Thomason, a sophomore forward. ``It ain’t struck midnight yet. We’re still dancing.″
The ride started Friday when Bryce Drew, son of coach Homer Drew and brother of assistant coach Scott Drew, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to upset Ole Miss in the opening round. On Sunday, the Crusaders beat Florida State in overtime.
``People didn’t even know who Valparaiso was,″ said Jamie Sykes, whose three-quarter court pass set up Drew’s game-winning shot Friday. ``Now everyone wants to be part of what we are.″
And if you can’t imagine this team winning it all, think back to the movie ``Hoosiers,″ with Homer Drew as Gene Hackman and Bryce as Jimmy Chitwood. Against all odds, Hackman coaches Hickory High to the state championship.
It just so happens that ``Hoosiers″ is Bryce Drew’s favorite movie.
``It’s about a small school having a dream,″ he said at the raucous pep rally for the team Monday afternoon.
The younger Drew knows something about having a dream. As the 1994 Mr. Basketball in a state where basketball is practically a religion, he could have gone anywhere. Big-time schools like Stanford and Syracuse came calling.
So did his dad. And it just so happened that Bryce wanted to play in an NCAA tournament with his father on the bench. He also wanted to hit the game-winning shot that he’d been practicing in the back yard all his life and make a small school famous.
So he gave up the big names and the television time _ the Mid-Continent Conference isn’t exactly a big draw _ and stayed in a place where loyalty and good deeds never go unrewarded.
``If you’ve ever talked to Bryce, he’s the nicest guy you could ever meet,″ said Eric McMullan, a clerk at BRQ Quickprint near the town’s main square. ``It’s nice to see them have some success.″
This is, after all, an entire town’s team. Everyone is on a first-name basis with the players, whether they know them or not. Drew’s jersey is more popular than Michael Jordan’s.
It’s the kind of place that anyone who’s ever dribbled a basketball in their back yard is embracing as their very own _ at least for this week.
``It’s a small-time community. It really is like the movie `Hoosiers,′ just on a bigger scale,″ said Lee Kleist, sales manager at B&E Honda, across the street from campus.
``This is what the tournament is all about.″