The iconic boys basketball team from St. Michael’s High School etched its name into history with a run to the state championship game in the 1961-62 season.
Named for the vertically challenged starting lineup whose average height was slightly less than 5-foot-8, the team survived a tough district race, beat Carlsbad in triple overtime in the first round of state, held off Valley in the semifinals and came up two points short of Sandia in a sold-out title game in Albuquerque’s Johnson Gymnasium.
The members of that team will be honored during Thursday night’s regular-season home finale at St. Michael’s.
Coincidentally, the gym that now serves as home to Horsemen hoops is named, in part, after Mighty Midgets head coach Dick Shelley.
“It’s been 51 years,” says Ivan Montoya, a starting guard during the 1961-62 season, “and still we’re close. Everyone on the team knows what everyone else is up to.”
Nicknamed “Freight Train,” David Fernandez was the team’s leading scorer.
Fast and aggressive, he was joined in the starting lineup by Johnny Gonzales, Gil Gutierrez and Ray Sanchez. Montoya and Felix Lujan rotated spots in the starting five, but other than that there wasn’t much depth on a roster that went 12 deep.
Among those on the bench was a player that would go down as one of the best St. Michael’s has ever produced: Then-junior Nick “The Stick” Pino. As a senior he grew to 7 feet and set several school and state scoring records, parlaying his success into a college scholarship to Kansas State.
“I kid my buddies about all the bad hips and knee replacements we’ve had because of that year,” says former reserve Connie Trujillo. “That has never been a problem for me because I had a good view from the end of the bench.”
To truly appreciate the Midgets, one must first understand the historical context.
In 1962, life was simpler.
Lines of communication had more to do with landline calls and face-to-face talks than what we’re accustomed to in the social media frenzy that dominates today’s world.
But not even snail mail could keep the Horsemen out of the spotlight.
The team burst onto the scene during the 1961 state tournament with an upset win over Farmington in the first round.
The Scorpions’ roster included a 6-8 center and a 6-6 forward. That forward was Ralph Neeley, who would later go on to play for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL.
The next day’s headline referred to the Horsemen as the “Mighty Mites.”
The Horsemen lost in the state semifinals to eventual champion Las Cruces High, a team coached by future New Mexico State and Illinois head coach Lou Henson. Most of the Mites returned the following year, christened anew as the Midgets.
Behind it all was Shelley.
“Coach, he was light years ahead of his time. He really was,” says Fernandez, the school’s best all-around athlete his senior year. “He wasn’t a basketball player in his time. He came to Santa Fe to play college golf, but he learned the game. He might not have been a player, but he was a great coach. No one prepared like him.”
“He always made us believe that we were calling the shots even though we weren’t,” Trujillo recalls. “We’d sit down as a team and have these chats where he’d throw out ideas and ask us what we thought. Of course he already made up his mind, but he did it in a way that made us think we were in charge.”
A native of New York, Shelley was a stickler for precision. His style of offense, dubbed “The Shuffle,” was a precursor to the Princeton offense seen today. It was punctuated by backdoor cuts and pick-and-rolls.
It also utilized the team’s strength: Speed.
“There really was no such thing as positions,” Montoya says. “We were all guards, all posts. We were five players on the floor, that’s it.”
The defensive philosophy was all about the full court press. If an opponent penetrated it, the half-court set focused on denying the entry pass and clogging passing lanes.
Unlike prep basketball’s current alignment in which schools are divided into six classifications, back then there was Class A for the bigger schools and Class B for everyone else.
With an enrollment of roughly 400 — all boys since St. Michael’s did not allow female students until 1968 — the Horsemen competed in Class A and often played against schools with four of five times the enrollment.
The triple-overtime win over Carlsbad stoked the fans’ flames.
By time the title game against Sandia rolled around, a sellout crowd of more than 7,000 packed Johnson Gym to see Sandia’s huge lineup.
Among the Matadors was 6-7 senior Louis Baudoin, a future member of the national championship team from Texas Western.
Some fans, like Montoya’s parents, were turned away.
“They listened to the game on the radio out in the car,” he says with a laugh. “It would have been nice to have The Pit.”
Sandia won the game 66-64 after sinking the winning shot with 7 seconds remaining. A last-ditch attempt by Sanchez was off the mark.
Half a century later, it’s not the memory of the loss that persists.
It’s the little team that set the stage for one of the state’s most tradition-rich high school programs.