TERRE HAUTE —
Bryan Egli and Joe Puthoff, both Rose-Hulman basketball starters I covered in the late 1990s, took their degrees from the prestigious engineering institute and found successful careers in the Indianapolis area.
Egli, also a former West Vigo High School multi-sport standout, lives in Carmel and works for Thieneman Construction in Westfield. Puthoff lives in Indy and works for Rolls Royce Aircraft Engines.
Both have plenty of everyday activities to keep them busy. But when they get rare opportunities to unwind and meet with former teammates, the subject of the Engineers’ three NCAA Division III tournament appearances during their era usually pops up.
It came up this week because the 2011-12 version of the Engineers qualified for the Division III tourney for the first time since 1999. The first of what they hope will be several NCAA games is tonight against North Central College inside the Washington-St. Louis Fieldhouse.
Proud of their past accomplishments, the former players offered a little advice for the modern-day Engineers.
“Enjoy the ride,” Egli suggested. “The most important thing to remember is that any one of these 64 teams can get hot and win the whole thing. It’s all about confidence and momentum.”
Rose should be full of those qualities after winning three games in three days, including an overtime victory over nationally ranked Transylvania in its own gym, to capture the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) tournament championship last weekend.
When the alums learned of this latest achievement, Puthoff e-mailed his old coach — Jim Shaw, who still guides the Engineers — and recommended Shaw tell the current players to “enjoy the moment and ride the momentum from the conference tournament as far as they can.”
Puthoff recalled his freshman year, 1995-96, when neutral observers did not expect Rose-Hulman to win the Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference (ICAC) tournament at Hanover. But it did anyway after knocking off Wabash, top-seeded Hanover and Manchester to earn an automatic bid to the Division III tournament, which consisted of only 32 teams then.
“We just got hot at the right time,” Puthoff explained.
Unfortunately, the Engineers were forced to travel to Wash. U. to play the host school for their NCAA first-round game and they lost a 76-74 heartbreaker to finish with a 19-9 mark. Egli, another freshman that season, was the sixth man and Puthoff played a reserve role as well.
“It was the most nervous I’d ever been before any sport I played,” Egli admitted. “We were up the entire game and they ended up pulling it out.”
Rose also ended up 19-9 in 1996-97, the sophomore year for Egli and Puthoff, but that record could have been soooo much better.
By this point, Egli and Puthoff had become starters on a squad that was led by seniors Troy Halt and Kent Murphy.
Shaw’s Engineers routed a good Wabash team 70-52 in the final regular-season game ever played inside historic Shook Fieldhouse. But three games later, they lost to the same Little Giants 63-62 in the ICAC tournament in Shook.
Still, Rose-Hulman received an NCAA at-large bid. After pounding Wash. U. 88-69 in the first round in the final game ever played in Shook, its second-round game would be at and against then-powerful Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ill.
The Engineers were missing two regulars (including Egli) for academic reasons, but they accepted the challenge and took the host school down to the wire before losing 54-53 on a late rainbow shot from the right side by Illinois Wesleyan’s Bryan Crabtree.
Illinois Wesleyan went on to claim the Division III national championship that season.
“I thought that was the [Rose] team that was playing the best in the NCAA tournament,” noted Shaw, who said he told his current players about the Illinois Wesleyan showdown this week.
“That was probably my most memorable experience, playing in that kind of environment,” Puthoff said of the large crowd that came to support Illinois Wesleyan. “That game was a classic roller coaster of emotions. It was a toe-to-toe slugfest between two really good teams.”
Puthoff mentioned missing an off-balance, closely contested shot at the final buzzer that would have won the game, but let’s not remind him of that 15 years later (insert “wink” symbol here).
Egli, who watched the action in street clothes, wished he could have been out on the court helping his teammates.
“Out of our four years there, I’d say that might have been the best team we had,” assessed Egli, who thinks the Engineers could have advanced to the final four had they got past Illinois Wesleyan.
After a sub-par 1997-98 season for the Engineers, the institute joined a new athletic league known as the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) for Egli’s and Puthoff’s senior year in 1998-99.
The SCAC did not offer a postseason tournament similar to the ICAC then and the HCAC now. So when Rose-Hulman won the SCAC regular-season title, that was good enough for another automatic bid to the Division III tournament.
The Engineers, who were nationally ranked most of that season and also included solid Vigo County players in Matt Millington and Sam Johnson, made a long trip to Maryville (Tenn.) to battle the host school in the first round. They lost 66-59 to finish their season 20-6.
“They were a pretty good team,” Puthoff reflected. “If we had played our best, I think we could have beat ‘em.”
Although Rose’s good teams from the late ’90s never reached the Division III final four, their players aren’t lacking for NCAA tales to tell whenever they get together for beverages.
“That’s definitely one of the best memories I have from college,” Puthoff pointed out.
“Those are the stories we always fall back on,” Egli added.
David Hughes can be reached by phone after 4 p.m. at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.