Imagine, if you will, a squad of baseball players still clad in their sweat- and dirt-streaked uniforms taking an impromptu, late-night team plunge in a hotel pool.
Startling maybe for other hotel guests, but it would have been hard to blame the adrenaline-charged Cowboys of New Mexico Highlands University for the unscheduled dowsing.
That’s because national championships are a rare thing indeed for teams from New Mexico.
“It’s not an easy thing to do and, to be honest with you, it was a thrill of lifetime,” said pitcher Phil Shroer, who later became a basketball coach and athletic director at Cibola High school in Albuquerque.
“I played sports all my life and I coached sports. There was no bigger thrill. After that championship game, going back to the hotel we were staying at in St. Joseph’s, Missouri, the whole team jumping in the pool, with our uniforms on. It was something else. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Even die-hard Mew Mexico sports fans would be hard-pressed to name the few national title holders from the state.
Until the University of New Mexico ski team broke through for a crown in 2004, one would have to go all the way back to the 1960s to find a team champion from New Mexico
And that would be the Highlands Cowboys, who celebrated a national championship 50 years ago, perhaps the first collegiate championship for a team from the Land of Enchantment.
“These guys were unbeatable,” coach Jim Marshall said. “You could feel it in the air. They had their step in their git-along and they got after it. They were so confident in themselves.”
A large contingent of that 1967 team will be gathering in Las Vegas this weekend to celebrate the half-century anniversary of their feat.
“It was something I promised myself I would do if nobody else did it,” Schroer said.
Little Highlands, which then competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, drew players from across the land, with catcher Pat Malcheski being the only local from Las Vegas, N.M., where the school’s campus is located. Pitcher Bob Dabovich hailed from Raton, pitcher George Laws from Alamogordo and infielder Mike Arrington from Farmington.
“It was the most unusual team I’ve ever played on,” Malcheski told David Wesner for a story in a Highlands Homecoming celebration publication in 1987. “We had players from every state in the union. Everyone had a nickname. On the field, we were very serious, but off the diamond things tended to get kind of loose.”
Loose to the point that late-night dips in hotel pools were fairly tame behavior.
“We were a young team, and full of spit and vinegar,” said outfielder Ron Humpert. “Most of the things we did were probably censored.”
It was enough to give Marshall gray hair.
“The only time I worried was when we left the field,” he said with a chuckle. “They were ornery sons of guns. But they played really well.”
Actually, the off-the-field shenanigans were part of what made the team so good, the players said.
“We all got along together on and off the field,” Humpert said. “We had some crazy guys on the team. But we had some good players. Everybody did their job.”
It was a team built on the strength of its pitching and was making its second straight appearance in the national tournament.
“We were a pretty hungry team to get back there the next year (1967) and get the job done,” Humpert said. “Going to St. Joe’s a second time, we didn’t want to come up short. I do remember that year, we got on a hot roll.”
Indeed, counting the four games at the national tournament, the Cowboys won their final 22 games. They rolled through Kearney State, Glassboro State, Grambling (with future Major League star Ralph Garr) and Glassboro again to win the title.
Beating Grambling was the big one because before the tournament, they were the prohibitive favorite.
“They were a very good team, no question,” Humpert said. “I don’t think they quite saw the pitching we had. Out of those eight teams, there wasn’t anybody looking forward to facing our pitching staff.”
It was the turning point, Malcheski told Wesner.
“Before we won that game, we were just glad to be at the championships, to be part of the action,” Malcheski said. “After we beat Grambling, a team that on paper was much superior to us, the thought of being national champions entered my mind for the first time.”
The Cowboys had to overcome a 1-7 start to the season as a chunk of its pitching staff also played basketball and were just rounding into form.
“We went on a binge there at the end of the year when we were playing our best baseball,” Schroer said.
Highlands played a tough schedule, facing the likes of Texas Tech, New Mexico and Texas Western (now UTEP).
Road trips to those and other schools were taken via personal vehicle as there was no team bus or even vans for the players.
“I drove my personal car with three or four guys in it,” Schroer said. “We never took a bus one time. We never flew. It was all our own automobiles.”
But that helped to bring the team together and hone it into a championship-caliber squad.
“I had a team, once they crossed that white line, I sat back and grinned,” Marshall said. “You could have coached that team. That was a great group of kids. Everybody did the job for us.”
It was a special time with a special group of young men who accomplished a tremendous task — one that too often gets overlooked. There were no parades when the team got back to Las Vegas — as a matter of fact, many of the players just headed home after the tournament, not returning to school until the next semester in the fall.
“School was already out for the year, but we stayed around practice,” Schroer said. “They did recognize us at a football game.”
And now, 50 years later, there still isn’t much recognition for the group.
“We’re the best kept secret in the state of New Mexico,” Schroer said. “You get south of Las Vegas, nobody knows it happened. I guess that’s part of being a small college. I think if we were the Lobos or the Aggies, this thing would be celebrated in a grandiose way.”