Last year was a disappointment for Scranton. The Royals' record, 24-8, was not so bad, and they won their regional title. But in the Division III championships, they lost in the semifinals to Wittenberg and wound up third. The main problem was that Paul Miernicki, the point guard around whom the offense is built, got into academic difficulty in December and had to sit out 13 games.
This season the team should be at least as good as the championship bunch of two years ago. Three starters are back—Miernicki; his best friend and backcourt mate, Phil Johnson; and Phil's younger brother Irvin, a 6'5", 215-pound center who as a sophomore last season was a first-team Division III All-America.
When Irv Johnson, a high school triple-jump champion, arrived at Duh U, the Scranton papers began calling him the "Flying Fledgling." But last year, when he averaged 14.8 points and 9.7 rebounds a game, he was rechristened "Swirvin' Irvin, the I in the Sky."
The Johnson brothers, sons of a retired Air Force master sergeant, lived in Mississippi, Illinois and Alaska before settling down in Upper Marlboro, Md., where they went to high school. Their guidance counselor was a Scranton grad, and it was he who steered them to Duh U. Miernicki is from Fairless Hills, Pa., near Philadelphia. His father is a steelworker, and he has four brothers and sisters, most of whom are athletes. Miernicki visited the Naval Academy and Drexel but chose Scranton because it needed guards.
The Johnsons, who are black and Protestant, are atypical Scranton students. Recruiting black players, especially from inner cities, is tough because there are only 854 blacks in Scranton, .8% of the population. The ratio at the university is almost the same. Miernicki, who is white, Catholic and a member of the first generation of his family to go to college, is near the Scranton profile.
The school is small (2,556 day students, including 896 women, who were first admitted in 1972), and costs are moderate ($3,700 for room, board and tuition). Still, 78% of the full-time undergraduates receive financial aid. Pat Foley, a junior from Edison, N.J., who might have gone to Rutgers but chose Scranton instead, has given his choice a lot of thought. "One night I had a car accident with five other guys," he says. "They took us to the hospital, and before long four or five priests showed up, including Father Byron, the president. I can't imagine Edward Bloustein of Rutgers rushing to a hospital because six guys had an accident. If you appreciate that sort of thing, you're going to like this place a lot."
William J. Byron, S.J. has been in Scranton only two years, but he finds that he is already a quasi-public official. "We create a vitality in Scranton," he says. "We retain youth, and we import more. We give the city a tempo that would wind down to zero if we were to move out."
The beat in Scranton is picking up considerably about now, because the festivities are resuming in the Long Center gym. The Great Raoul (pronounced Rah-ooool), a student who wears a velvet cape and circles the gym riding a "magic" mattress and waving to his subjects, is ready to go into his act again, and the self-appointed cheerleaders have assembled the weird costumes they wear to games.
This year Bessoir intends for his team to make its entrances to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and if he gets his way, his lone regret will be that the season opener against St. Bonaventure will be the Royals' only game against a Division I opponent. The rest of the big-time teams refuse to go near Scranton for fear of being beaten.
"We're small," says Bessoir, "but we jump very, very well. We were only outrebounded three times last year, and 90% of the teams we played were taller than we were. We've never had the good big man, a seven-footer. That's the real difference between Division III and Division I."