Horsemen team from 50 years ago relives winning three state titles in 3 years

March 18, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE — It truly was a 50-year reunion for Tom McCarthy.

The former head boys basketball coach of St. Michael’s said it had been that long since he saw some of his former players, who were a part of a Horsemen dynasty that capped one of the most successful runs for a high school program. This weekend provided the perfect forum to reconnect and relive those halcyon days with the program as the New Mexico Activities Association Foundation held its annual reunion banquet Friday.

The organization celebrates state champions from 10, 25 and 50 years ago during the state boys and girls basketball tournaments. It held a banquet Friday, then honored the teams at halftime of each boys and girls state championship game. St. Michael’s was honored at the half of the Class 3A boys game between Santa Fe Indian School and Hot Springs.

And just like any reunion, there is an air of familiarity to it.

“It’s like we’ve never left,” the 81-year-old McCarthy said. “I don’t recognize but one or two of them, but it’s been great. They were good to me and hopefully, I was good to them.”

The 1968-69 St. Michael’s team won the last of three straight state titles. The Horsemen were runners-up four times from 1962-66. It is a run comparable to Albuquerque Academy, which won five straight state titles from 1990-95 and was runner-up three times, and Albuquerque Hope Christian in this decade (eight titles and a runner-up).

What made the run by the Horsemen more distinct is the era in which they played. There were only three divisions, and St. Michael’s competed in Class A, the middle class. The Horsemen had been runners-up three straight years when the eight seniors of the 1968-69 team were freshmen.

Some of them were on the varsity as sophomores, but saw limited time on the 1966-67 team that won its only title under head coach Dick Shelley. However, they made up the bulk of the team the following year, but had to adjust to a new face and a new philosophy in McCarthy. He had a tough act to follow in the step of an ailing Shelley, who died in 1968 from a heart attack.

“Coach McCarthy, he added his own personality to [the program],” said Joe Butler, who was one of those eight seniors. “He interacted in a much different way then coach Shelley did. He also understood what he had here and didn’t try to completely reinvent the wheel. He kinda shepherded what coach Shelley started much earlier in the decade.”

McCarthy had his own pedigree, having come from Taos Central, where he lead the team to a Class B title in 1967. Shelley helped McCarthy get the job, and he kept the program churning with a second title, despite an adjustment period. Butler said the team came together when McCarthy took command with a stern speech late in the season.

“We tried to get away with stuff, take shortcuts,” Butler said. “We got to a real tough time in ’68, and he put the pedal down and said, ‘That’s enough. If you guys are not going to respond to me being more collegial with you and giving you respect and letting you do things your own way, I’m just going to have to out my foot down and this is how things are going to be.’ ”

It set the stage for the 1968-69 team, which won its last 18 games after a 6-4 start and beat West Las Vegas four times, including in the Class A championship game. McCarthy said the path to a state title was much more challenging then than it is today.

“We had an 18-team district, and you had to get through a 13-team regional,” McCarthy said. “It was tough. Now, you have five, maybe six teams in your district. I’d have won state every year!”

It was a great moment in time and many of the Horsemen moved on to productive lives. Butler was athletic director at St. Michael’s, Santa Fe High and Moriarty before spending four years with the NMAA, retiring last year. Melvin Perez, the leading scorer on the team, played basketball at Sam Houston State and coached basketball at St. Michael’s before moving to Santa Fe High, where he taught and coached softball before retiring two years ago.

As great as it was for former teammates and the coach to get together, there was a sense of finality to the ceremony. The NMAA doesn’t have 75th year reunions, which means this might be the last time the group gets together. However, Butler and McCarthy both said they would lobby the NMAA to honor the surviving members in 2044.

Butler said one of the themes that came out of this reunion was the bond the group had and the desire to stay together, especially since most of them are retired.

“We realize now how special we are to each other,” Butler said. “One of the guys said [at the banquet], ‘We were in the first quarter of life then. Now, we’re losing guys all the time. We can’t even say we’re in the fourth quarter. We’re in overtime, so we need each other.’ ”