Bethlehem graduate Eslinger winning at Caltech

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology were the ones that announced earlier this we
Bethlehem graduate Oliver "Doc" Eslinger has helped the Caltech basketball team change its reputation.
Bethlehem graduate Oliver "Doc" Eslinger has helped the Caltech basketball team change its reputation.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology were the ones that announced earlier this week that there’s evidence a ninth planet exists in Earth’s solar system.

Such a discovery is the kind of thing Caltech — a Pasadena, Calif. school with a 34-deep roster of alumni and faculty members who have won a Nobel Prize — is known for producing.

Wins on the basketball court? Not so much.

Oliver Eslinger, though, is starting to change that reputation. The 1993 Bethlehem High School graduate is now in his eighth season as the team’s head coach, and improbably has Caltech tied for the lead in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with a 4-2 league record.

“This is definitely something we envisioned,” Eslinger said of his Division III team’s first-place status.

He might be the only one. Those four league wins — with 10 league games to go — are the school’s most since the 1953-54 season . . . and equal to the program’s combined total in the 45 seasons before “Doc” — Eslinger holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and sport psychology from Boston University — took the reins for the 2008-09 season.

Prior to Eslinger, 40, heading to Caltech, the Beavers had not won a conference contest since the 1984-85 season. It took the coach until the final game of his third season to break that run of futility with a 46-45 win, but Caltech saw itself get swept in its next three league seasons.

All the while, though, Eslinger believed his program was making progress. His recruiting picked up as he better learned how to make his program’s challenges — Caltech accepted only 9 percent of the world-class undergraduate applicants it had for the 2015 fall semester — into advantages.

“Recruiting has its challenges anywhere,” said Eslinger, who was an assistant at MIT before going to Caltech. “But I also have the whole world to recruit from . . . and I get to work with the greatest students in the world.

“But,” he added, “it’s about more than recruiting talent. It’s about a function of belief in the system, in the culture.”

Last year, that progress started to show. The overall record — 4-21 — didn’t overwhelm anyone, but Eslinger’s squad won three of its final seven games.

“That was a real tipping point for us,” said Eslinger, whose team lost one of those final seven games at the buzzer.

Out of conference, Caltech — which counts Dave Briski, a Coxsackie-Athens High School alumnus, as one of its assistant coaches — started this season with a 2-7 mark as it played against some of the best Division III schools in the country.

“We’re not afraid to play anybody,” said Eslinger, whose team took on programs like Whitworth, the nation’s No. 1 team. “We really feel like we can compete with anybody now.”

Before dropping a game Wednesday to fall into a four-way tie for first place, Eslinger had his team alone atop the SCIAC. Despite the long odds against the Bethlehem graduate, the coach — whose team won 19 of 175 games in his first seven seasons — said he never wavered in his belief that Caltech could find a winning formula.

“If I ever did, I wouldn’t still be here,” he said. “I’ve always maintained that optimism.”


Heading into this season, known stars were a scarce commodity in Suburban Council boys’ basketball, outside of Shenendehowa senior Kevin Huerter.

From the 2014-15 season, area programs saw talent depart at the level of Guilderland’s Andrew Platek (to prep school), Columbia’s Jahlil Nails (to graduation), and Shenendehowa’s Tom Huerter (to graduation, and then to prep school).

In their wake, a fresh crop of top-notch players have emerged. Guilderland’s Andrew Sischo, a 6-foot-9 center, has dominated down low; Niskayuna’s senior backcourt of Andrew Evans and Tommy Kelly is the league’s top scoring duo; and Troy sophomore guard Daniel Buie has the Flying Horses atop the league’s Gray Division.

There are more headline-grabbers, but also several stars that have generally flown under the radar this season. Colonie’s sophomore duo of forwards Isaiah Moll and Bryce Waterman likely gives the Garnet Raiders the best future of any team in the league. Outside of Huerter, nobody does more for his team than Averill Park senior guard Isaiah Moak? And senior guard Brian Hayes has kept Shaker in the hunt with his 16.3 ppg average.

“He’s the guy that nobody talks about,” Averill Park head coach Dave Pugliese said of Hayes. “He only takes good shots, he rebounds, and he just plays really hard.”

When it comes to underrated players, Pugliese said Schenectady sophomore Tobias Holmes and Guilderland senior forward Justin Morin are another pair of players that come quickly to mind. So, too, does the Shenendehowa trio of senior guard Petar Bebic, junior guard Luke Hicks and junior center Mike Pizziketti that operates in Huerter’s shadow.

“Those kids don’t get assessed fairly,” Pugliese said. “Like, Luke Hicks, he’s a top-five player in this league. He won’t show that until next year because he’s a great teammate and he defers to [Huerter] — and why wouldn’t you? — but he’s tremendous.”


In the state rankings, Shenendehowa teams continue to dominate. The boys are No. 2 in this week’s Class AA poll, while the girls are No. 4. . . . Bethlehem and Niskayuna played to triple overtime on Tuesday, with Bethlehem taking a 92-91 decision. Bethlehem overcame a six-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter in the win. . . . Speaking of the Silver Warriors, a fun one tonight takes place in Niskayuna when CBA pays a visit to an old friend. Niskayuna’s Evans, leading the Suburban Council in scoring at 23.4 points per game, played at CBA last season.

Categories: High School Sports

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