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ACIT’s Carter: ‘the most incredible 24 hours I can remember’

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

As Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament director Joe Carter concluded his phone call on Sunday evening with the head basketball coach of Malvern (Pa.) Prep Academy, John Harmatuk, he knew it was Go Time, more so than usual at this time of the year — for him and for his entire group of volunteers who were just settling in for their final planning meeting for this week‘s 60th ACIT.

“He said (Malvern Prep) couldn’t come,” Carter said Tuesday morning on The Morning Rush. “He said the principal of the school put a no-travel edict into effect for the entire school because of the coronavirus. It was 6 o’clock Sunday night and that meant we were in for a lot of work on Monday.”
Monday came and Carter was on the phones, calling everybody he could think of, beginning with the Baltimore Catholic League commissioner Jack Degele.

“I called Jack,” Carter said. “I called Cardinal Newman of Columbia, South Carolina; they had a strong interest in coming. I called many of the private schools until we finally got a team.”

That team is Rock Creek Christian Academy, of Upper Marlboro, the second non-Catholic school to be invited to the ACIT, with the first one being St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, of Alexandria, Virginia, who will also be participating in this week’s tournament, which begins Thursday, 4 p.m., at Frostburg State University.

The Rock Creek Christian Academy Eagles (28-7), who last week defeated Bishop Walsh in the Maryland Private Schools State Championships final, 74-62, will further extend their national schedule this weekend, having defeated St. Benedict’s, of Newark, N.J., 71-69, this season, and having lost to Wasatch Academy, Mount Pleasant, Utah, 89-66, in this year’s Bob Kirk Invitational, hosted by Bishop Walsh.

St. Benedict’s is currently ranked No. 20 in the ESPN Top 25, while Wasatch sits at No. 3.
This year’s ACIT field consists of five teams that have been nationally ranked, including No. 6 DeMatha, No. 17 St. Frances Academy and No. 24 Paul VI, who are currently ranked in the national poll. Gonzaga and St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes have also been ranked this year, while Bishop Walsh has played as many as eight to 10 top-20 teams this season.

“Rock Creek was not originally on our list,” Carter said, “and Cardinal Newman, as I said, was very interested and wanted to come, but their principal had just denied their band a trip to Disney World, and while we’re not quite Disney World, there wasn’t any way the basketball team could have come given that the band had been denied because of the coronavirus situation.”

Carter said the ACIT’s original choice was long-time ACIT favorite Mount St. Joseph of the BCL, the Gaels having come off another great season that included an MIAA Conference championship win over St. Frances. However, the Gaels had some injury concerns, as well as some of their players already being involved with the start of baseball.

Carter also reached out to Archbishop Spalding and Mount Carmel, two former ACIT participants.
“Then Alex Brant called (Bishop Walsh head coach) Dan Prete,” Carter said. “He gave us some names and we called and, luckily, Rock Creek Christian accepted. In fact, they were scheduled to play in another tournament, but really wanted to come to ours. So, they’re coming and we’re delighted and thankful they are.”

Rock Creek head coach Lafayette Dublin expressed his excitement for the ACIT invite as well, posting on Twitter, “The Creek would like to thank (the ACIT) for the invite and we graciously accept. See you Thursday! First time a Christian school is invited! God is amazing!!”

Rock Creek will play Gonzaga College High in Thursday’s fourth game beginning at 9:15 p.m. St. Frances and St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes tip off the tournament at 4 p.m. Defending champion DeMatha and host school Bishop Walsh square off at 7:30 p.m. in the third game.

Carter said the ACIT programs and T-shirts have already been made, given the close proximity to the tournament’s start, so Malvern Prep will be featured in this capacity. However, every effort will be made to insert the Rock Creek information into the programs.

“In my 17 years (as ACIT chairman), this has been the most incredible 24 hours I can remember,” Carter said. “It’s certainly unique. Hopefully, we can get through the day.”

And by that, Carter means he is hopeful all of the teams are able to arrive to Cumberland by Thursday and the tournament can still go on as scheduled. However, he was quick to caution, given the circumstance, who knows what each new day is going to bring?

“Basically,” he said, “it’s out of our hands now. As of now, the tournament is a go. But if the state of Maryland or the Allegany County Health Department make those decisions we’ll go with them.

“I have not been in contact with the health department, but I have talked to Frostburg State University, who is on spring break this week. And we will have the tournament unless somebody higher up says we won’t.”

Carter says the decision to include at-large non-Catholic schools in the ACIT has been well-received thus far, but the jury will remain out until after this weekend’s event to determine if at-large will remain the course of action.

“Our cause is for the developmentally disabled,” he said. “We’ll see, because it is extremely important how these teams act when they’re here. I’ve never sent anybody home once the weekend started, but I came very close once.

“It’s important because, unlike most tournaments these teams go to, we’re all together. We stay in the same place and what we have done for 59 years cannot and will not change.”

Plans have been made to remember the late Morgan Wootten, the Hall of Fame DeMatha coach who died this year, as well as honor former Roman Catholic and St. Joe’s Prep head coach Speedy Morris, who retired from coaching this year.

“Speedy will be honored this weekend,” Carter said. “He and his entire family, as well as many friends from Philadelphia will be here this weekend. Morgan Wootten and Speedy Morris are two of the biggest reasons we’re still here having this tournament 60 years later.”

The headline game of the opening night will be the Bishop Walsh-DeMatha game at 7:30 p.m., the Spartans once more the tournament host team, and the Stags the defending and 25-time ACIT champion.

“That is not a coincidence,” Carter said of scheduling the Spartans and the Stags for the opening-night prime-time game. “We want to get as many people in the seats as possible to raise more money for the developmentally disabled. And if Bishop Walsh would win? I think we could count on Friday night being pretty much sold out by 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Until then, the ACIT and Wamba Caravan No. 89 will continue to make the final-days preparations for the 60th version of the second-longest running high school basketball tournament in the country, and the longest-running high school tournament of its kind. And, for the entire time, until it is really go time, they will hold their breath.

“If I’m told between now until then that we can bring the teams into play, but not the fans, I’d cancel it,” Carter said. “We do this for the fans. We do this for the community. They need to be there.”


ACIT welcomes back its neighbor from the North

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

The Cathedral High School Gaels, of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, have never been one to miss a party, which is why they have been extended and have accepted an invitation to participate in the 60th Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, March 12-14, at Frostburg State University.

A tournament favorite since their first ACIT appearance in 1983, the Gaels and their contingent will return to Allegany County with plenty of their customary Canadian Flag lapel pins for the first time since 2010 when they took part in the celebration of the 50th ACIT.

Cathedral will be making its 13th ACIT appearance, first coming to the tournament under Canadian basketball coaching legend Mark Walton, who guided the Gaels for 27 seasons and also coached the Canada Basketball’s National Elite Development Academy girls team when it was based in Hamilton.

Walton is currently the head coach of the University of Guelph women’s basketball team.

In just their second ACIT in 1984, the Gaels reached the final before falling to one of Morgan Wootten’s greatest DeMatha teams, 70-53. That Cathedral team was led by all-tournament selections John Kijonek and Peter Giftopoulas, who would go on to star at linebacker for Penn State’s 1986 national championship football team.

Cathedral has since finished fourth twice in the ACIT.

Cathedral is the fourth team to accept an invitation for the 60th ACIT, joining defending champion DeMatha, host school Bishop Walsh and first-time participant St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes of Alexandria, Va.

Speedy

Philadelphia legend Speedy Morris will retire from coaching after 52 seasons at Roman Catholic and Penn Charter high schools, LaSalle University, both the women’s and men’s teams, and for the last 19 years at St. Joseph’s Prep.

The Prep defeated rival LaSalle High School on Sunday in Morris’ final regular-season game and will now compete in this weekend’s Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs.
The winningest coach in Philadelphia prep basketball history, Morris, who is a member of 11 Halls of Fame, is 77 years of age and is battling Parkinson’s disease.

Morris began his coaching career at Roman where he spent 14 seasons (1968-81) with the Cahillites. His teams there won six Catholic League and eight Southern Division titles and went 347-82.

Morris then moved to Penn Charter for two seasons (41-14) before LaSalle University recruited him to make its women’s program relevant. He did just that, going 43-17, winning one league championship and making an NCAA tournament appearance before he was asked to make LaSalle’s storied men’s program matter again.

Morris was the head coach of the Explorers’ men’s team for 15 seasons, going 238-202 with four league championships, four NCAA tournaments and two NIT invitations. He coached Lionel Simmons at LaSalle when he was the 1990 National College Player of the Year.

As the Philadelphia Catholic League teams now participate in the Pennsylvania state tournament, a Philadelphia team has not made an ACIT appearance since 2008, when Roman Catholic, the team Morris first brought to Cumberland, made its final appearance as defending champion.

Roman Catholic first came to the ACIT in 1969 and fell to Sam Puckett and Hales Franciscan of Chicago, 57-56, in the final, but won back-to-back ACIT crowns under Morris in 1975-76.
Roman and Gonzaga College of Washington, D.C, have both won six ACIT titles, second only to DeMatha’s 25.

Do not be surprised to see the great William “Speedy” Morris in Cumberland and Frostburg for the 60th ACIT. Along with the late Morgan Wootten, Morris is as responsible for making the Alhambra the national event that it is and, just as the late Wootten was, has always been one of the tournament’s most loyal and influential friends.

National rankings

DeMatha (23-2) is ranked No. 2 in the national ESPN Top 25, with undefeated Montverde Academy (Fla.) No. 1.

Meanwhile, with its 80-61 win over national power Oak Hill in the East Coast Bump showcase at UMBC’S Event Center, St. Frances (27-3) of the Baltimore Catholic League, cracked the national top 10 at No. 8.

Oak Hill (20-2) has dropped to No. 11, while Bob Kirk Invitational participants ranked in the national poll are Wasatch Academy, No. 5; La Lumiere, No. 20; and St. Benedict’s Prep, No. 24.
I’ve been told for future reference, we might want to keep our eye on No. 12 Long Island Lutheran, of Brookville, New York, but just sayin’ …

The Washington Post D.C. rankings show 1. DeMatha (23-2), 2. St. Stephens/St. Agnes (23-3), 3. Paul VI (19-6), 4. St. John’s (21-6) and 8. Gonzaga (18-9), who fell to St. John’s and DeMatha last week.

Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@alleganyradio.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT


Goodbye, old friend … We’ll miss you

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

As a kid growing up in Cumberland, Maryland during The Wonder Years, likely the most anticipated weekend of your life came every March when the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament was played at Allegany High School.

You somehow convinced your parents to allow you to leave school early on Thursday and Friday. Or not. But somehow you left school early anyway and worried about the consequences later. And then you walked downtown to experience downtown Cumberland at the finest it has ever been in our generation’s lifetime, including Christmas.

Shops and stores, restaurants and lunch counters were alive, seemingly always with bright sunshine and light air filled with the anticipation of the coming spring and with pure giddiness over all of our guests who were in town from Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. It was such a grand time in our lives and in our city.

And then, after you ate at Coney Island and hung out at the Fort Cumberland Hotel where the teams stayed in those days, you made the trek up the hills of West Side to set up camp at Campobello in the Allegany gym for three nights of the greatest in-person basketball experience of your life — all 12 games, all three nights, every single March for the rest of your life. Or at least in your mind’s eye.

You were a kid in Cumberland and the ACIT was the cherry on top of your Wonder Years, I promise you that.

You bought the ACIT souvenir program first thing (the famous Allegany pretzel second thing) and then you went to work, for you had come to Campobello armed with Flair pens for the sake of collecting autographs until your Flair pens dried up or until there was no more space on your program for anybody to scribble another single word.

It was hard work, yet it was exhilarating work, because these were the greatest basketball players we had ever seen, and having poured over the statistics and the records and the write-ups in the Cumberland News and Evening Times, we knew everything about everybody who was playing in the tournament each year.

We ran ACIT brackets for all 12 games of the weekend long before there was anything called March Madness. This was our March Magic and we were the luckiest kids in the world.

All of those days came streaming back to me Tuesday morning upon learning our friend Morgan Wootten, the basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville for 46 years, was receiving home hospice care. On Tuesday evening, Coach Wootten died peacefully at 88 years of age surrounded by his family.

It doesn’t seem possible we won’t see him any longer when you consider the twinkle in his eye that you noticed the first time you met him and would continue to be drawn to every single time you were around him.

The first time I met Coach Wootten was in 1971, the first year the Stags would win the ACIT — the first of a record 25 years, in fact, with the first 18 coming under Coach Wootten.
My uncle Bill, who taught and coached in Prince George’s County at the time, introduced me to Coach Wootten, and he autographed my program and offered kind words. And that was always the characteristic about him I have long marveled over. He was never a, “Hi, how you doing?” walk-by person and he made certain he never met a stranger, for if a person took the time to introduce himself, Morgan Wootten took the time and the interest to get to know something about him.

As I continued to ask for and receive his autograph every March, I was taken, particularly for being a youngster, that he not only would sign his autograph, but would make conversation with you as well. When I asked him to sign his book “From Orphans to Champions” the year it came out, he A.) asked me if I liked the book and then B.) asked me what parts of the book I liked best.
I mean, who am I? Some kid who took the time to say hello, I suppose. So if doing so seemed to mean that much to me, Coach Wootten always let you know it meant that much to him, too.

He made every visit, every greeting, every chance meeting significant because he was kind, honest, generous and curious. He was truly interested in you; I’ve never seen anything like it. And it remained that way from the first time I met him as a young fan at the Allegany gym.

When I covered his teams in the ACIT for nearly 20 years, he always made himself available, providing his home number and his office number. And when the task at hand was complete, Coach Wootten then took time to ask how I was doing, how the job was going and how my family was.

I also heard from Coach Wootten through the mail. He wrote notes and letters — thank-you notes for something that may have been written about DeMatha, notes of congratulationsif the occasion so warranted and one time he even mailed me a commemorative Morgan Wootten National Basketball Hall of Fame basketball.

And always, those cards or notes were signed off with, “Thank you for all you do. God bless. Your friend …”

Morgan Wootten was likely the best and most accomplished basketball coach the world has ever known, at least that’s what John Wooden once said. Yet all of that is truly secondary to all he was as a person — a man of his faith and his family first, and a teacher, as he always said, “Coaching is teaching.”

Coach Wootten would not want anybody to say that he and his DeMatha Stags made the ACIT, because what has always made the ACIT — friendship and hospitality — is what drew Wootten and DeMatha to Cumberland and Western Maryland to begin with. So much so, that since 1967 when the Stags made their first ACIT appearance, Western Maryland has been, as the coach said many times, “our second home.”

The Stags once turned down a trip to Ireland because it would mean missing the ACIT, and the Wootten family even moved the nationally acclaimed Coach Wootten Basketball Camp to Frostburg State University where Morgan’s son Joe runs it every summer.

Matter of fact, it was during one of those camps when Joe and Terri Lynn Wootten’s third child, Jackson Joseph Wootten, was born Tuesday, June 16, 2009, at Cumberland’s Memorial Hospital.

For over 50 years the Wootten family has been coming to Allegany County, to compete, to coach, to relax, to enjoy, and to teach the great game they love so much, and Morgan Wootten even coached his final game here, calling his Hall of Fame career a wrap at Frostburg State, directing the Stags to the 2002 ACIT championship, his final game being against his son Joe‘s Bishop O‘Connell team.

The next three years it was Joe and his teams cutting down the ACIT nets.

Morgan Wootten always said that Western Maryland and Allegany County had been kind to the Woottens, but, truth be told, the Woottens have been so kind to us. There have been a lot of championships; a lot of love and friendship; a lot of wonderful memories here for the man John Wooden called “the best basketball coach there is — at any level.” Yet that love and friendship has been returned to us in kind by him.

Morgan Wootten, who became friends here with ACIT founder Joe Divico and then, really, never left, was the first high school basketball coach to become a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He retired from coaching with 1,274 victories and just 192 losses while competing against a national schedule and as a member of the most powerful high school basketball conference in the country.

No, Coach Wootten would not want to hear anybody say that he and his DeMatha Stags made the ACIT, but they did, in fact, make the ACIT the national tournament it’s been for over 50 years.
Thank you for all you do, Coach Wootten. God bless. From your friends here at your second home.

Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@alleganyradio.com or on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT


ACIT goes independent, invites St. Stephen’s St. Agnes

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

CUMBERLAND — St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, an independent Episcopal coed college preparatory school in Alexandria, Va., will be represented by its boys basketball team at the 60th Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, March 12-14, at Frostburg State University.

This is news because it will mark the first ACIT appearance for the school that was created from the 1991 merger of St. Agnes School and St. Stephen’s School and consists of three campuses within a 1.5-mile radius.

It is also news because the Saints (13-2), the No. 5-ranked boys basketball team in the Washington, D.C. area, will be the first team from a non-Catholic school to play in the Catholic event, which is the second-longest running high school basketball tournament in the country behind only the Indiana state tournament.

“This remains and will always remain a Catholic tournament,” said ACIT general chairman Joe Carter, now in his 17th year, having succeeded the tournament founder, the late Joe Divico, in 2004. “We just feel we got as much out of Washington and Baltimore (the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and the Baltimore Catholic League) as we could get.

“In most instances, the teams from both of those leagues that come to us have already played against each other three, four, maybe five times by the time they even get here. That’s why we decided at the last minute to rearrange the Day 3 schedule last year. Those teams were tired of playing each other, and I understood that completely.”

The ACIT has contracts with the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and the Baltimore Catholic League, taking the champions of each conference as well as the WCAC runner-up. The defending ACIT champion as well as host school Bishop Walsh also receive automatic invitations.

For years, the ACIT brought in the top Catholic teams from all over the country, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Utah, Texas and even Canada. Yet through the years the tournament has become handcuffed by travel and postseason tournament restrictions by most states.

The Philadelphia Catholic League, for instance, an ACIT fixture for decades, made its final appearance here in 2008 as the state’s Catholic schools joined the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), meaning their athletic teams became bound to the PIAA state tournaments and were no longer permitted to play after the state tournament or in invitational tournaments such as the ACIT.

“So,” Carter said, “we decided it was time to select three at-large schools that didn’t have to be Catholic; but not the ‘prep-prep’ schools that get entirely new teams in every year.

“We called Glenn Farello (Paul VI head coach) and Steve Turner (Gonzaga Catholic) for some input, and what they told us led us to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes.”

DeMatha Catholic, of Hyattsville, and Cumberland’s Bishop Walsh are set for the field as well, the Stags as defending champion, and the Spartans as the tournament host school.

“We would like for our tournament to be at the point where we have five teams ranked in the national top 25 every year,” Carter said. “Well, last time I looked, there were four ranked in the top 25 from D.C. alone, so this year could still be four from D.C., BW, one Baltimore and two at-large, which could lead us to move around the Day 3 schedule again.

“We’re looking for quality teams with big-time players, and as we’ve known for quite some time, the Washington Catholic league is the toughest league in the country. Those teams just get after each other every night.

“Ideally, we’d like to have three D.C., three at-large, Baltimore and Bishop Walsh. But if four teams from D.C. are in the top 25, that’s as good as you can do. Which ain’t too shabby. But we’ll see.”

In the most recent ESPN top 25, DeMatha is ranked No. 5, St. John’s College No. 8, Paul VI No. 13, and Gonzaga No. 22. From Baltimore, St. Frances of the Baltimore Catholic League is No. 10 and Baltimore Poly of the MPSSAA is No. 24.

Regionally, St. Frances is the No. 1-ranked team in Baltimore, while in Washington the rankings run DeMatha (11-2), St. John’s (14-2), Paul VI (9-3), Gonzaga (11-4) and St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, one through five respectively.

Currently, the ACIT has been following a team from New York and one from South Carolina, according to Carter.

Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@alleganyradio.com or on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT