MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of feedback from around the country concerning the “indefinite hiatus” of the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament after a historic run of 63 years.

The annual March weekend meant a great deal to a great many people all over this country and in Canada. After all, the tournament hosted over 85 teams from 10 states, the District of Columbia and Canada and featured over 100 alumni who went on to play NCAA Division I basketball and many others who have and continue to play and coach in the NBA.

“I received word from Alhambra Wamba Caravan No. 89 of their intention to place the historic Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament on indefinite hiatus,” Baltimore Catholic League commissioner Jack Degele said in a statement. “The Baltimore Catholic League is saddened by this news, as the ACIT partnered with us to host our league champion and at-large teams as part of their fields since the beginning of the BCL in 1971-72. BCL teams took on schools from around the country and Canada as part of the most prestigious Catholic tourney in the nation, and two of our schools — Calvert Hall during their undefeated national championship season of 1982 and St. Frances in 1996 — earned the ACIT title.

“On behalf of our schools, we sincerely thank the Wamba Caravan and the hundreds of volunteers and workers who made the ACIT a special weekend of prep basketball and fellowship every March in Cumberland.”

The ACIT has always meant more than great basketball to so many people because of the friendships that were made here and for the hospitality that was shared. As we quoted Sean Franklin, one of the hundreds of ACIT volunteers through the years, “They come as friends and leave as family.”

That is so true in so many respects, as pointed out by Mark Royster, an assistant coach of Benedictine High School of Richmond, Va. from 2007 through 2014.

“It is hard to believe (the ACIT) is ending,” Mark wrote in an email. “Benedictine had been there before, but I believe 1981 was the last one before we came, in maybe 2008. As a staff, (head coach) Sean McAloon, Ryan Stein and myself, we had no clue what we were about to experience. That year, we had no idea how it all worked.

“We screwed up the hotel situation and all three of us slept in one double bed, but it didn’t matter. That first game was at 9:15 p.m. but didn’t go off until about 9:50. Neumann-Goretti pounded us the first half but we adjusted, fought back, but lost.

“It was afterward, though, in the hospitality room that we realized it was more than winning and losing. All of the locals were so impressed with our team that it felt like we won. We also stayed up until 3 a.m. celebrating our loss, and that morning we realized how important it was to the community that teams come, play hard and enjoy the hospitality. After that, we couldn’t get enough of the ACIT.

“We came close to winning, but we always felt we won by just being there. The stories we have are always vivid — Joe Carter, the Brants, the Rhodeses, the sponsors, the workers were so happy for us win or lose; it didn’t matter.

“Our most memorable moment came at church. One year, church on Saturday, the teams were asked to be there. As you know, we are a military school. We had our own bus and we pull up right close to church time and we are the last team to enter. We go in the side door, our kids in uniform and the place gasped. That night, I’m sure every volunteer came up to us and thanked us for having our kids in uniform – it was ridiculous how many.

“Sean, Ryan and I on the way home Sunday talked and couldn’t believe they thanked us. We felt as though it was us who were so thankful that we experienced the ACIT. It was a helluva run for us as a staff and I will never forget.

“One thing I understand is the changing dynamic of high school basketball. Our tournament, the Benedictine Capital City Classic is patterned after the ACIT. Coach Rut (former head coach Warren Rutlege) had either attended or coached Benedictine there in 1964 or ’65 and the next year our tournament was up and running at Christmas.

“March will be different in Cumberland, but boy, the memories will be forever told that weekend.”

Benedictine was always a fan favorite at the ACIT. In fact, the first ACIT I attended as a kid was in 1971 at old Allegany High School and Benedictine was one of the teams (and in ’72), and they had a guard that drew our attention immediately and who would become one of the prized autographs for all of the kids in their ACIT programs. His name was John Kuester, and he would go on to play on great North Carolina teams as well as coach the Detroit Pistons in the NBA.

Years later when I was able to cover the ACIT, Benedictine would return with players like Ed Davis (North Carolina), Michael Gbinijie (Syracuse), Bradford Burgess (VCU) and others who went on to VCU and Richmond. ACIT fans follow all of these guys in college and we’ve always taken kind of an ownership stake, a sense of pride, when these players do well for themselves because, to us, they will always be “ACIT kids.”

It is sad the ACIT as we came to know it over the years is shutting it down for now. There has been a real melancholy to it, here and from around the country, that will last for a very long time. It was always the best weekend of the year for me. I just loved it, and we all certainly loved having folks from all over North America come to our city and give us such world-class basketball; but most of all, to share the world famous ACIT and Allegany County hospitality with us.

The basketball has always been out of this world fantastic, but the hospitality and helping so many in need as Wamba Caravan No. 89 has always done and will continue to do have always been what the ACIT is about, and we will miss it a great deal.

It’s as ole Gus told Woodrow in Lonesome Dove, “It’s been quite a party, ain’t it?”

We could just go on and on; and in time, we probably will.

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