Twins Ty (left) and Zac Meulemans of St. Mary, Menomonee Falls, could be the third generation in the family to have success in the Padre Serra Tournament. Also pictured are their mother, Terri, and grandfather, Gary Romanowich. (Photo by Larry Hanson)

When Terri Meulemans was in grade school at St. Margaret Mary in the 1990s, she and her teammates would look at the banners on the gymnasium walls and dream.

The Milwaukee school’s history of Padre Serra basketball tournament championships served as inspiration for those young girls.

“We would go into practice every week and look at those banners, and we would just dream about having our name up there,” Meulemans said. “Every time we came in, that was our goal.”

Little did she know there was someone in her own family who had played in, and won, the annual grade-school tournament championship: her father and the team’s coach, Gary Romanowich. It wasn’t until right before Meulemans’ team was preparing for their run in the Padre Serra in 1996 that he let them know he was part of the St. John de Nepomuc team that won the 1971 championship.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Meulemans said. “He brought out these pictures from the newspaper that featured the team winning. It really helped us to buy into ‘this coach knows what he’s talking about’ because he’s already been through it. Even growing up, fifth-, sixth-, seventh-grade, we would go to the games and watch them at the Cousins Center. It was just amazing, and it motivated us as a team.”

Meulemans and her team eventually lost in the championship game of the 1996 Padre Serra to St. John Vianney.

“We have quite a history in our family of doing well in the Padre,” Romanowich said, noting Terri’s sister Melodie’s team lost in the championship game and her brother’s team lost in the semifinals.

The Padre Serra Tournament is hosted annually by the Serra Club of Milwaukee in support of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Now, a third generation of the family is looking to make their mark in the event. Meulemans’ twin sons — Zac and Ty — are part of a St. Mary, Menomonee Falls, eighth-grade team that is 13-0 (through last week) and should be one of the top contenders when this year’s event runs March 7-24.

Meulemans, who helped coach her 6-foot-1 sons when they were younger and now serves as tournament coordinator for the school, has enjoyed watching them from the stands and realizes the life lessons athletics can provide.

“(Sports) help them understand the meaning of being on a team and what that is,” Meulemans said. “We’ve been able to use it to help them in goal setting, understanding how different roles are valuable, that life isn’t always fair. There will be ups and downs.”

Ty Meulemans has spent the past year gaining some perspective on the meaning of sports and their role in his life. He recently returned to the basketball court after a year away from athletics with a torn ACL.

“That’s put a different spin on things,” Terri Meulemans said. “Now, we’re just glad to see them play. We don’t even care if they win. We’re just glad to see both of them out there and getting the opportunity to do something that brings them joy.”

Terri described Ty as an “old soul” with a strong faith who leaned on that to get him through the time away from the floor.

“I think it’s given him a different perspective in that the winning isn’t everything, but it’s the going out there and being able to participate. He also took a different role in cheering on his teammates and being an encourager from the sidelines,” Terri said. “Getting that experience is different at that age, being out for so long, and I really think that’s helped him mature.”

Romanowich said those lessons are a crucial part of athletics.

“When I coached my daughters at St. Margaret Mary, I was a very competitive coach, and looking back, I kind of regret that now. Over my lifetime, I’ve learned that sports isn’t the be-all, end-all; it’s a means to learn some life lessons, and that’s what it should be more than the hype about who wins and who loses,” Romanowich said.

In the early 1970s, Romanowich and his teammates at the tiny, now-defunct St. John de Nepomuc at 37th and Townsend knew very little about the Padre Serra, which had begun in 1959.

He and his teammates had won all nine of their league games and played in a holiday tournament, losing their second game of that event.

“We didn’t know what the Padre was,” Romanowich said. “We had a meeting one night late in the season and our coach said, ‘Well, we’re invited to this Padre tournament, but if you go to it, you can’t go to any other tournaments.’ We ended up at the Padre.”

After a lopsided first-game victory in the tournament, St. John de Nepomuc won its second game in overtime and its third and fourth games by one point each. In the championship game, they defeated St. Gregory the Great, 46-36.

While playing through that gauntlet, Romanowich said he still didn’t realize what a big deal the tournament was until near the end.

“I don’t think it really settled in until the last weekend, where we had to play the semis and the finals,” Romanowich said. “We realized this is pretty awesome playing in front these crowds.”

There’s a chance he will be part of those crowds in less than a couple of months, and his oldest daughter will be right there alongside him.

“When you look at the Catholic school basketball leagues, there’s just a little bit of a difference,” Terri said. “You’re playing for the pride of your school, your parish. It’s special. It’s been a bonding experience to have three generations experience Catholic school basketball.”