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St. Mary's puts 'student' in student-athlete

Pinning athletes with the "dumb jock" label that's so prevalent in movies and TV shows is becoming more difficult these days thanks to the exploits of teams like the boys basketball squad at St. Mary's High.

There seems to be an increasing turn toward true student-athletes these days, and not the cartoonish image of the hulking football player who can't read but is given a free pass in the classroom.

In the case of the Crusaders, getting a 'B' in class makes you the weak link.

And we're not talking about the show-up-and-pass classes many of us sought out in planning our schedule. We're talking calculus and advanced placement U.S. History. Classes with thick books and tiny print. Classes where there's very little hope of answering 'C' throughout and getting a good grade.

And still the St. Mary's boys basketball team was able to generate an overall grade-point average of 3.77 — tops in the sport for Oregon in all classifications, 6A to 1A. The Crusaders will receive "Got Milk" sweatshirts from the Dairy Farmers of Oregon for their state-best academic marks.

"That was pretty cool when we found out about that," says Bay Gross, a backup forward for the Crusaders. "I think we're more excited about the sweatshirts than anything."

Regardless of the freebies that go with it, it's a heady prize and not easily achieved.

Then again, like some boys basketball teams are loaded with height, the Crusaders have a stockpile of potential National Merit Scholars.

While the final results have not officially been tabulated, juniors Gross and Zach Tomlinson scored high enough on their PSAT test to traditionally be considered merit scholars and, when seniors, potentially be among the 15,000 finalists out of 1.4 million student entrants nationally.

Fellow junior Pete Watson is one step below and in line for acclaim as a commended merit scholar.

To put it in perspective, Gross scored in the 99.5 percentile nationally on his PSAT. Tomlinson scored in the 99th percentile and Watson in the 98th percentile.

"When you think about all the kids that are taking the PSATs, it's pretty amazing," says St. Mary's boys basketball coach Rick Jackson, whose team finished as runner-up in the Southern Cascade League and 15-9 overall.

Remember that big test you crammed for and nervously took on a Saturday when you were a junior? A guy like Gross missed maybe four questions. Not per section, mind you, but total. Tomlinson missed five overall, the lone error in math coming when he says he figured the question correctly but wound up writing down the wrong answer.

"It's almost worse than getting a 'B' when you think of it," Tomlinson says, only half-kidding. "You missed out on getting 100 percent by missing only five questions."

Bummer, huh? I'm sure we all can relate.

In their spare time — if there is such a thing — Gross and Tomlinson are joined by senior teammate Andrew Larson and three others to comprise the top math team in the small schools division in Southern Oregon.

St. Mary's currently boasts three math teams, which are running first, second and tied for third in their division.

"It's about the only thing in our school that you get cut from," Jackson says of the math team. "You can't get cut from any sports team, but you can get cut from the math team."

"That's what is kinda cool about St. Mary's," adds Gross. "It has a lot of scholar-athletes, so to speak. Everyone is pretty serious about that."

So serious that Jackson often finds himself in an unusual position as head coach.

"It is interesting to have to schedule basketball practice around Brain Bowl matches and math competitions," he says. "That's not something a lot of basketball coaches have to worry about."

Still, Jackson says he's happy to accommodate. As have been most others at the school for student-athletes like Gross, Tomlinson and Watson.

"Sometimes it gets a little hard but you just have to prioritize," Tomlinson, 17, says of fitting it all in. "All the coaches and teachers here are really understanding and know I want to do a lot of things, so they find time outside class or during lunch break to talk with me."

Tomlinson also runs track in the spring and had to find time between practice for theatrical plays he's in to do this interview. Gross played soccer in the fall, and Watson was part of the football team.

"It's actually not as bad as you'd expect," says Watson, 17. "You have to study and everything, obviously, but I've never really found it that I don't have time to do anything else but study."

In basketball, Tomlinson and Larson were featured players in the starting lineup, while Gross and Watson fulfilled backup roles off the bench. A 6-foot-2 wing, Larson averaged around 13 points and seven rebounds per game, while the 6-4 Tomlinson averaged about five points and five rebounds.

So, does higher intellect equate to better play on the basketball court? Sometimes.

"A lot of games involve thinking," says Gross, 17. "I'm not sure our lessons correlate to basketball plays, but certainly being a good student can help out. If you're smart, you're probably going to be a better basketball player."

But you also open yourself up for the big whammy whenever you do something not-so smart on the floor.

"Coach Jackson thinks it's pretty funny a lot of the time," adds Gross. "He's always kinda bragging about us, but if we ever forget a play he asks the whole team how the merit scholars can do calculus but not remember an out-of-bounds play."

Jackson says the tangible connection between academics and athletics for his group involves their dedication and discipline and an unwavering willingness to work hard.

"I think that's what translates onto the basketball court," says the coach. "They really do exactly what we want them to do and work hard and probably overachieve and get a little bit more out of what they have physically."

"I think what you're talking about is having perspective," adds Jackson. "These are kids who may not have all the abilities that we would like to have on a basketball court, but these kids are going to do amazing things with their lives because they truly are scholars in every sense."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com