MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

The field is set for the 61st Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament and it will be led by the St. John’s College High School Cadets (29-2), the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion coached by Pat Behan.

St. John’s, which defeated Paul VI, 65-63, in last weekend’s WCAC Tournament final, is the top-ranked team in the Washington Post poll and the No. 16 team in the ESPN national top 25.

The 61st ACIT will be March 9-11 at Frostburg State University.

Along with St. John’s, the ACIT, due to unforeseen circumstances, will host three other teams from the WCAC, Bishop McNamara (23-7) of Forestville, Gonzaga (24-8) of Washington and defending ACIT champion DeMatha (19-11) of Hyattsville.

St. Maria Goretti of Hagerstown, the No. 2 team in the Baltimore Catholic League, Cumberland’s Bishop Walsh (8-18) and newcomers Bullis School (25-2) of Potomac, the No. 3 team in the Washington Post poll, and Catholic High School (33-2) of Virginia Beach, Va. round out the field.

Joe Carter, who is in his 20th year as the tournament’s general chairman, has said the scale the ACIT would like to use each year is three Catholic teams from Washington, one or two from Baltimore, host school Bishop Walsh, the defending champion and two or three at-large teams.

The ACIT has contracts with the Washington and Baltimore Catholic leagues to select those leagues’ regular-season champions each year. Bishop Walsh is invited to be the host school each year, while this is likely to be the final year the defending tournament champion will receive an open invite to automatically return.

“We weren’t planning on inviting four WCAC teams,” Carter said on Thursday. “But Mount St. Joseph’s (the Baltimore Catholic League regular-season champion) declined the invitation this year; so Mount St. Joe made that decision.

“We invited Paul VI (of the WCAC and the No. 4 team in the country according to ESPN), but they are waiting for an invitation to the GEICO Nationals, which I understand completely. But I couldn’t wait.

“The other factor with Paul is, they are only allowed to be in three postseason tournaments a year, and they’ve been in the WCAC and are in the Virginia Independent championships this weekend. If they had agreed to come here, they would not have been able to accept the GEICO invite if it comes.

“I get it. They were up-front about it and I’ve known about that since January when (Paul VI was) in Cumberland to play Bishop Walsh.”

Carter explained that the ACIT had decided in 2020 not to automatically invite the defending champion to return the following March, and this was decided during the same coaches meeting that March when it was decided to cancel the ACIT that year due to the pandemic. However, Carter said it was never put into writing.

DeMatha, which won the ACIT last year under interim head coach Pete Strickland, is this year coached by Mike Jones; but not the same Mike Jones who coached the Stags to multiple ACIT titles and who is now the associate head basketball coach at Virginia Tech. The current DeMatha head coach Mike Jones was the head coach at SS. Stephen’s and Agnes in 2020, which had earned an invitation to the ACIT the year it had to be canceled. Jones and DeMatha, though, were unaware the defending champion was no longer to receive an automatic invitation.

“So that was on us,” Carter said. “That was our fault, and I have no idea why it was not put in writing, so, naturally, we invited DeMatha. And they’re a team that has gotten stronger and stronger later in the year.”

The final slot, according to Carter, was down to Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy and the WCAC’s Bishop O’Connell and Gonzaga, with Carter saying the tiebreak in Gonzaga’s favor being the Eagles’ defeating both teams twice.

“So we took Gonzaga,” Carter said. “They were a top-25 team nationally early in the season and a very young team and, face it, we can never go wrong with the WCAC.”

Carter believes the story of the tournament, though, will be St. John’s, a team on a mission for their head coach Pat Behan, who was diagnosed in May with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at age 34.

All season, the Cadets have played inspired basketball behind a trio of playmakers — senior Malik Mack and juniors Donnie Freeman and Daquan Davis — and entered the WCAC tournament as the No. 2 seed.

“I remember Pat Behan very well,” Carter said. “He was the St. John’s coach the first year we made the decision to switch the Day 2 schedule around because the Baltimore and Washington teams had already played each other so many times that year, and he asked me after the day’s schedule was remade, ‘Why do I have to play that game?’

“And I remember Mike Jones (the former DeMatha coach) and Steve Turner (the Gonzaga coach) were sitting there and I told Pat, ‘I owe you one.’

“Well, St. John’s was the first team we invited this year.”

Carter said this year’s ACIT, due to the circumstances that arose, has been the most difficult one to get ready for, but that he is very pleased with the field and he believes fans will be as well.

“I wish Paul VI would have worked out, because they are so highly ranked,” he said. “But St. John’s is nationally ranked, so I think it’s going to be very competitive and another great weekend of basketball.”

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