They used to call St. Mary's the Notre Dame of the West back in the days when the Galloping Gaels were capturing nationwide headlines with their colorful football teams. Public fancy was piqued not only by the team's fine record against many of the country's leading powers—climaxed by victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl in 1939—but because this was and is a small school by any standards. The student body has seldom exceeded the less-than-700 which it is today. In the late 1940s, however, like many another college its size, St. Mary's found itself unable to carry the burden of intensive recruiting and the 100-odd athletic scholarships necessary to field a first-rank team, and in 1951 intercollegiate football was dropped completely.
The subsequent search for sports prestige by most of the colleges in this category veered toward concentration on basketball—St. Mary's was no different—and it is truly remarkable how many of the Catholic schools have since consistently achieved national ranking despite their slim enrollments. The list is as long as this page and includes San Francisco, DePaul, Niagara, St. Bonaventure, La Salle, Canisius, Providence, Seattle, St. Joseph's (Pa.) and Santa Clara. And the explanation: a disproportionately high percentage of the country's best coaches has been attracted to these small schools—Phil Woolpert, Ray Meyer, Dudey Moore, Taps Gallagher are just a few of them.
To such a distinguished roster of colleges and coaches the names St. Mary's and Coach Jim Weaver will have to be added this year. For the Gaels have begun to gallop again, this time on the hardwood, and are apparently headed for the school's first conference basketball title in its history.
Weaver, a mild, scholarly 39-year-old who played and coached under Meyer at DePaul, is no exception to the coaching rule of disclaiming optimistic predictions. But he is also too honest to talk about achieving "upsets," as many others do when their squads are loaded with talent. "We are," he says, "at least a lukewarm favorite." He is also, these days, meditating on the odd fact that success has thus far come to him in a sequence of fours. In his fourth year as coach at St. Patrick's Academy in Chicago he won both the Catholic League and the city championships. In his fourth year at St. Mel's high school in Chicago he repeated the same two victories. He is now in his fourth year at St. Mary's.
More important to Weaver than those omens, however, is the presence at St. Mary's of a ruggedly handsome young man named Thomas Nickolas Meschery, who came to the campus in California's lovely Moraga Valley by an even odder sequence of events. Indeed, if the Japanese had decided to attack Pearl Harbor on a day other than December 7, 1941, he might not have come there at all.
Meschery's parents fled their native Russia during the 1917 Revolution. They got as far as Harbin, Manchuria. There the elder Meschery found a job with the U.S. consul and there Tom was born in 1938. The following year Nickolas Meschery left his wife, Tom and 2-year-old daughter Ann in Harbin, emigrated to San Francisco and began saving pennies toward the day when he could send for his family. It came in December 1941, and Mary Meschery boarded the train in Harbin—with Tom slung knapsack-fashion on her back and Ann in her arms—headed for the port of Mukden, a ship and reunion by the Golden Gate. That meeting was delayed for five years.
Halfway to Mukden, Japanese soldiers stopped the train, announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor and held all passengers for transshipment to prison camps. In the group were 15 Christian Brothers from Canada, who immediately adopted the Mescherys and, for the next three years, served as protectors, playmates and teachers of the children. "I was pretty young, of course," Tom recalls today, "but I remember vividly all the things the brothers did for us. They were second fathers to me. They'd carry me around the prison camp on their backs, play with me, somehow get me the oranges I loved to eat. And they gave me the castor oil when I ate too many of them. I wouldn't take it from anyone else. I was a stubborn little guy."
Often, Tom and the brothers had to suspend a game of "catch" and dash for shelter when American bombers came overhead. "Once," he remembers, "bombs set fire to the camp buildings and we had to get out in a hurry. We ran around Tokyo looking for shelter and found a hospital operated by some Catholic sisters. We stayed there for a year or so until the war was over."
In San Francisco at last, Tom grew to his present 6 feet 6 inches and muscular 210 pounds, made his first contact with a basketball on the Grant School playground and took to the game immediately. He won all-city, all-state and all-America honors in high school, attracting scholarship offers from more than 50 colleges around the country. The clamor grew after he appeared in the AAU championships in Denver in 1957 where, as a mere high school graduate, he played first-string with an amateur San Francisco team that went all the way to the finals, winning recognition as the most promising player in the tournament. None of the fantastic bids—both over and under the table—made much impression on Meschery, however. He chose St. Mary's (operated by the Christian Brothers) "because of the great respect and admiration I have for the brothers." It was as simple as that.
Meschery is a deceptive kind of basketball player—for spectators, at any rate, whose eyes are often caught by flashy styles and moves. Though he scores well enough—he was high man with the undefeated St. Mary's freshmen last year—his real value to a team lies in other areas. He is a dogged rebounder, a clean but unspectacular passer, a defender who cannot be discounted. Only a careful reading of a game's statistics reveals his true worth, generally showing him the team's top scorer, but with 16 rebounds, a half dozen assists and, most important, having held his man below double figures. It is the kind of performance that inspires teammates. "He is," as Jim Weaver puts it succinctly, "a coach's player, perhaps also a player's player, because he's always picked on all-opponents' teams by other schools."
In the Gaels' first five games this season, Meschery led them to victory over UCLA, Stanford, Redlands and Sacramento State and, characteristically, blames himself for a two-point loss to a powerful California team which is favored to win the PCC title again. Three weeks ago the Gaels began a 2,500-mile tour, playing Utah, Utah State, Brigham Young and then Tennessee Tech and Washington University of St. Louis in the Holiday tournament in Evansville, Ind. Meschery had incurred a thigh injury prior to the tour, was sent back to California from Salt Lake City and did not play in any of these games. Without Meschery St. Mary's was an extremely erratic team, obviously missing his steady hand and control of the backboards. They beat probably the strongest team on that list, nationally ranked Utah, and the weakest, Washington, and lost to the other three.
This week they open the West Coast Conference race against Loyola in Los Angeles, and their toughest opposition undoubtedly will be Phil Woolpert's defending champions of San Francisco. But Meschery will be back in action, and, despite Weaver's caution, the Gaels must be counted somewhat better than lukewarm favorites. With Meschery up front, St. Mary's has slender, agile Laroy Doss, an excellent shooter, and Dick Sigaty, not quite as rugged as Meschery but a fine boardman. In the backcourt are reliable Bob Dold and Joe Gardere, who is only 5 feet 9 inches but, with Meschery, a key factor in team performance. Gardere can and has jumped high enough to block shots by rival players 10 inches taller. He is extremely fast, a good ball handler and often disconcerts rivals with his flashy ball hawking. This last, however, frequently leads him to gamble foolishly on being able to steal passes, with the result that his own man is left in the clear for easy shots. If he curbs this amateurish tendency, St. Mary's will have the backcourt playmaker it needs for first-rank consideration.
At any rate, the Gaels are back on the national scene again, primed to make loyal alumni, and a host of California fans, forget the golden days of football greatness.