MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Paul VI, the top team in the Washington, D.C. area, champions of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA), as well as three teams from the top conference in the country, make their return to the 60th Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament March 10-12 at Bobcat Arena on the campus of Frostburg State University, as the ACIT itself returns for the first time since 2019 due to the two-year COVID-19 pandemic hiatus.

Paul VI, ranked No. 22 in the country last week by USA Today, will vie for the coveted crown of the long-awaited 60th ACIT along with fellow WCAC members McNamara, DeMatha Catholic and Gonzaga.

The first ACIT game in three years, Thursday, March 10, 4 p.m., will feature St. Frances (33-7) and Bishop McNamara (21-4) of Forestville, runner-up of the WCAC. At 5:45 p.m., DeMatha Catholic (18-7) of Hyattsville, the reigning ACIT champion (2019) and 25-time tournament champion, will take on host school Bishop Walsh School of Cumberland, the Spartans (7-12) having finished their first season in the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference.

In Game 3, 7:30 p.m., the No. 25 team in the country, according to USA Today, Long Island Lutheran (18-5) of Glen Head, N.Y., makes New York’s first ACIT appearance since 1977 when it takes on seven-time ACIT champion Gonzaga (17-8) of Washington and the WCAC. The final game of the opening night, scheduled to tip off at 9:15 p.m., will pit the Baltimore Catholic League champion Gaels of Mount St. Joseph (31-5) and former ACIT champion Paul VI (26-4) of Chantilly, Va., the WCAC champion.

Paul VI, which defeated McNamara in the WCAC final, 43-42, last Monday and St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, 56-52, in the VISAA title game on Saturday, is the top-ranked team in the DMV according to last week’s Washington Post poll, while McNamara was No. 3, DeMatha No. 6 and Gonzaga No. 8.

In the Baltimore Catholic League, Mount St. Joe defeated St. Frances Sunday, 66-56, for the 51st BCL Tournament championship. The Gaels, the top-ranked team in the Baltimore Sun poll, are also the MIAA A Conference champion, while the No. 3 Panthers (33-7) took the BCL regular-season title for an unprecedented fifth consecutive time.

For the second time in a week on Saturday, Paul VI won a championship, just days after winning the WCAC, beating St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, 56-52, in the VISAA Division I title game, its sixth game in eight days.

A week ago in the WCAC final, the Panthers beat No. 3 Bishop McNamara as freshman forward Jaquan Womack won it with a last-second follow. Two days later, Paul beat Virginia Beach’s Catholic High in the VISAA quarterfinal, having trailed by as many as 10 before winning by one.

The Panthers handled Episcopal in the semifinal before winning the title the next day.

“We have a young team, so being able to win a championship earlier this week carries over to today,” senior point guard Dug McDaniel told the Washington Post. “Our guys were ready and knew what to expect.”

McDaniel is the WCAC Player of the Year and has signed with Michigan. DeMatha forward Tyrell Ward has signed with Xavier, while Stags shooting guard Rodney Rice has signed with Virginia Tech, where he will join former DeMatha head coach Mike Jones, who is in his first season as associate head coach for the Hokies. McNamara’s Favour Aire has signed with Miami.

Meanwhile, for only the third time in 66 years, the job as DeMatha Catholic head basketball coach is open. After Mike Jones resigned at the Madison Street school to become the associate head coach at Virginia Tech, DeMatha hired alum Pete Strickland to serve as interim coach.

Jones, former DeMatha player and assistant coach, was named the interim coach to begin the 2002-03 season after his former head coach, Morgan Wootten, retired as the winningest coach in basketball history, having coached the Stags for 56 seasons. After a difficult first season, Jones was hired on a permanent basis and guided DeMatha to eight WCAC titles and seven ACIT titles, including the 2019 event, making the Stags reigning ACIT champs, even though three years removed.

When Jones left for Blacksburg, Va. last May to join the Virginia Tech staff, Strickland was named interim coach, as school administrators felt they needed more time to conduct a search to permanently fill the position.

Strickland hadn’t coached at the school in years, his only link to DeMatha basketball being an analyst for online streams of Stags games last season.

Strickland starred as a player for DeMatha under Wootten. He was DeMatha’s leading scorer in the 1975 D.C. City Title game, an upset of Dunbar before a sellout crowd at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. He went on to play at the University of Pittsburgh, then was an assistant for DeMatha under Wootten in the mid-1980s, teaching English at the school at the same time. He then had a long NCAA coaching career that included assistant jobs at N.C. State and George Washington, and seven years as head coach of Coastal Carolina.

According to the reporting of Dave McKenna of the Defector, among the candidates for the DeMatha job are Joe Wootten, son of the late Morgan Wootten and now head coach of Bishop O’Connell High School, a three-time ACIT champion itself; University of Delaware assistant Corey McCrae; Keith Bogans, longtime NBA player who has coached in the New York Knicks organization; Rob Balanis, now an assistant at Howard University; and several current DeMatha assistants. The best known of the said aspirants for the job, all of whom are former DeMatha players, would be former Georgetown star Austin Freeman.

Following ACIT first-round games on Thursday, March 10, championship and consolation semifinals will be Friday, March 11 starting at 4 p.m. On Championship Saturday, March 12, games begin at 3 p.m.

Tickets each day are $10 for adults and $8 for students and will be available at the door of Bobcat Arena. All games will be broadcast on Magic 100.5-FM and online at cumberlandsmagic.com.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT