'Pass the pill?' These St. Louis pharmacy students play ball

ST. LOUIS • Faizan Siddiqui had no clue a basketball team existed at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. That would’ve been fine, expected even, if he didn’t attend the school. But he does. Siddiqui stumbled on his team’s existence only recently, during his first weeks on campus, when he saw a sign for tryouts. The curious freshman from Chicago made the cut. He now wears the purple and yellow No. 40 jersey.

And then there’s Gozie Uzendu, No. 31, who figured his playing days ended with a seat on the bench at Mehlville High. The broad-shouldered young man found a second chance as the team’s 6-foot-4 forward.

There’s also Shawn Menckowski, the mop-haired No. 12 who was a basketball standout in tiny Christopher, Ill. Two colleges made him athletic scholarship offers. But he wanted to be a pharmacist. The dead-eye shooter recently joined the college’s 1,000-point club.

They all are aspiring pharmacists, enrolled in a rigorous six-year program at a school of 1,200 students tucked into five buildings next to the Barnes-Jewish medical campus in the Central West End. No one came here strictly to play sports, a peculiarity in an era when collegiate athletics are pushed at even the smallest schools. The coach has to schedule practices around his players’ late-night labs. Team bus trips are illuminated by the laptop glow of players reading. On the road, players hunt out the decks of indoor pools, a hotel’s quietest spot, to study.

“But these kids absolutely love to play,” basketball head coach Brian Swift says.

They’d better. Their small gym — named, appropriately, The Pillbox — has bleachers for only 350 people, and even then the visiting team often brings more fans. Some professors resort to extra credit for students who tear themselves away from their studies and attend the games.

Confusion can greet Kyle Jones, a quick freshman point guard from Williamsville, Ill., when he tells people he plays basketball at the St. Louis school.

“So you’re a Billiken?” he gets asked.

“No,” he replies. “I’m a Eutectic.”

A Eutectic. That’s the team name. Eutectic is a pharmaceutical term for two solids that together create a liquid. The school mascot is Morty the Eutectic, a cartoonish mad scientist in white pharmacy coat. One wall at The Pillbox shows him fiercely grinding a mortar and pestle.

“It’s a shock for most people,” Jones says. “They think of pharmacists as a bunch of nerds who can’t play anything.”

Coach Swift runs into the same thing and replies with a line from the baseball movie Major League: “Yup, we’ve got uniforms and everything, it’s really great!”

The team got new uniforms last year. Gone was the “STLCOP” on the front. It was replaced with one word: “Pharmacy.”

The pharmacy school, founded in 1864, added intercollegiate sports in 1993. Basketball and volleyball came first. Then tennis and track and field. Softball last spring. Next fall, the school will add men’s and women’s soccer.

The team competes in the NAIA Division II. It’s not easy. The Eutectics men’s basketball team has not won a game in its Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference since 2004. The team has not had a winning season for at least that long. Going .500 would be a success. They are off to a 5-5 start this year, including an 83-67 win over Logan University in Chesterfield.

“We’re starting to win a couple games,” Menckowski says.

Their biggest rivalry is with Albany College of Pharmacy, the only other independent pharmacy school with a basketball program. The two teams have twice played for the Apothecary Cup. St. Louis won it in 2011. Albany won it in double-overtime in 2012. The teams are not playing each other this season.

When the Eutectics do pull upset wins — and they do — it seems to drive opposing teams crazy. Swift recalls walking past the locker rooms at half time against Greenville College in Illinois a couple years ago and hearing the other coach scream, “You guys are losing to the college of pharmacy!”

Swift laughs about it now.

“That’s the way people perceive us,” he says.

The future will only get tougher. The school is leaving the KIAC and next fall stepping up to the American Midwest Conference in the NAIA Division I, where it will face more area schools such as Missouri Baptist and Harris Stowe. The competition, too, will be more rigorous.

“It’s not an easy feat to play at this level,” Swift says.

But that hasn’t stopped Dan Hemann, the center from Raymond, Ill., who didn’t play basketball until his last two years in high school when someone suggested that, at 6’7”, it might be a good sport for him to try.

Or Wooski Choi, a freshman from Buffalo Grove, Ill., who really likes to play baseball but ended up on the basketball team.

And Jones, the point guard, who said the promise of a game was what drew him to this place.

“When I heard I could play basketball and study to be a pharmacist,” he says, “it was a done deal.”

Source Article from http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/e44221b8-0f3e-546a-9cce-1da23f329bfb.html
'Pass the pill?' These St. Louis pharmacy students play ball
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