by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River graduate Rachel Finkbeiner attends La Salle on a volleyball scholarship, but one of her most exciting sports experiences at the Philadelphia school came in her role as sports editor of the campus newspaper the last three weeks.
Finkbeiner and three guys from the college TV station had a grand adventure fall into their laps — and they made the most of the opportunity — when the La Salle men’s basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992, then reeled off three upset victories as a No. 13 seed, reaching the Sweet Sixteen.
The student journalists became an interesting sidebar story themselves, getting attention from Philadelphia news outlets and the New York Times and Sports Illustrated blogs, for their successful effort to raise money to fly to Los Angeles and cover the fourth round of the NCAA’s after traveling by car to the first three rounds.
And Finkbeiner had the added distinction of writing a piece on La Salle for the New York Times college hoops blog at the Times’ request.
“It’s been a very exciting couple of weeks,” said Finkbeiner, a junior, catching her breath at home for Easter break when contacted Monday by the Star News.
Finkbeiner and her cohorts David Grzybowski, Mike McCoy and Andrew Albert motored to Dayton, Ohio, to cover La Salle’s 80-71 win over Boise State, then to Kansas City, where the Explorers beat Kansas State 63-61 and Mississippi 76-74.
“The guys are with the La Salle TV station. They were going, and I figured the school paper should also be represented, so I asked if I could go along,” said Finkbeiner. “We had them do reports for the newspaper, too.
“We packed for five days, and when (La Salle) won, we had to keep going. It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
Those victories placed them in the West Regional semifinals against Wichita State, slated for March 28 in Los Angeles. That would be a long drive. Thinking quickly, they created a fundraising page on the gofundme.com web site. Their cheerful plea received national attention.
A story by Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate, Channel 3, said the foursome “spent Monday fielding media calls and emails as the group made its way back to campus.” They wound up raising the money they needed — including a thousand bucks from the Philadelphia Phillies broadcasting team.
“We decided,” said Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy, in an interview on CSNPhilly.com, “that this would be the perfect thing to try to inspire folks who want to do what we are doing right now, and are lucky enough to be doing right now, to follow their dreams.”
The foursome wound up raising over $8,000. They stretched their resources by booking just one hotel room. Finkbeiner, interviewed in the same report, related how she pitched this idea to her mother, Joan, back home.
“She said, ‘Let me get this straight — you want my permission to stay in a hotel with three other guys?’ And I said, ‘Actually, I thought you’d be more concerned with me missing class!’ But she was OK with it. For the most part.”
In a writeup for Sports Illustrated’s blog One and One, Gabriel Baumgaertner chronicled the group’s seven day adventure, which included:
“The university’s 150th anniversary celebration on Monday night (which Grzybowski filmed for the school), a six-state traverse in a cramped Hyundai Sonata, a lost wallet at an Ohio rest stop, multiple botched hotel reservations, a single hotel room with only a king-size bed (for the four of them), and over 100 hours together between the car, the hotel rooms and the arenas.
“The four saw the World’s Largest Cross in Effingham, Ill., discussed shopping destinations with Craig Sager, heard both the boisterous roars and deafening silence of Kansas State fans, and witnessed Tyrone Garland’s ‘Southwest Philly Floater’ to beat Ole Miss and extend the Explorers’ best postseason performance since winning the 1954 national title.
“After all four finished their work at 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, they commenced the drive back, braving high winds and snow-battered roads for almost 20 hours to return to Philadelphia.”
The New York Times College Sports Blog picked up the story and went one better, inviting Finkbeiner to post an article on the Explorers run.
“The New York Times, asking me to write something?” she marveled. “I said, ‘Yes! Sure.’ ”
Her article concluded with:
“For La Salle, a little history has made tournament victories sweeter. Last Wednesday the Explorers defeated Boise State on their school’s 150th birthday. It was also the same day that La Salle upset Bradley for the national championship in 1954. In Kansas City, La Salle played at the Sprint Center, only five blocks from Municipal Hall, where that 1954 championship was won.
“And Philadelphia is psyched: even Temple University has been tweeting good luck to La Salle; both schools have adopted the tag:#NorthPhillyAgainstTheWorld.”
(You can check it out: the quad.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/28/la-salle-looks-to-celebrate-some-history/?ref=ncaabasketball)
Finkbeiner and her cohorts were indeed courtside at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when La Salle’s run came to an end with a 75-58 loss to Wichita State, which then upset Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
A 6-foot middle hitter on the volleyball team, she is majoring in communications, with focus on mass communications and public relations. She has been a news writer on the Collegian until this current semester, when the sports editor position opened up and she grabbed it. The NCAA tournament games wound up being the first ballgames she ever covered. (Most scribes have to work their way up to a plumb job like that.)
The La Salle foursome attended the press conferences and did locker room interviews. She also posted updates during the games on the Collegian’s Facebook page. “Things you might not get on TV, like reactions from the players and the coach talking to the players.”
Finkbeiner said she enjoyed the experience enough to decide sports broadcasting is where she’d like to wind up.
LaSalle, which finished 24-10, reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955. “This season was very unexpected,” said Finkbeiner. “We knew they would be a good team, but pretty young. Nobody expected this.” The Explorers’ glory days were six decades ago. Their 1954 team was NCAA champion, led by Tom Gola, for whom their arena is named. Finkbeiner said one of her Collegian staffers interviewed Gola, who’s in failing health, in an assisted living facility in Philadelphia. “He’s not doing well, but he still loves to talk basketball.”
Asked what else she likes about Philadelphia, she listed the famous Philly Cheese Steaks which she wolfs down at Pac’s, Geno’s and Chickies & Pete’s, along jogging past the art museum made famous by Rocky Balboa charging up its steps.
Finkbeiner is the lone Elk volleyball player to reach Division I. Her success at that level has been modest. In her sophomore year, she notched 116 kills (fourth on the team) and 23 blocks (third on the team) as a starter. As a junior last fall, two freshmen took over much of her playing time. She had 44 kills, 20 blocks, and 19 digs, playing in 58 of 112 sets, and the Explorers had a tough year, going 4-26. She injured her ankle in the next to last game and just recently got cleared to play again.
The former Elk is hoping for a better final season, when “I’ll be the only senior on the team.”
And another NCAA trip by the Explorer basketball team would be great, too.