MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports­­

In the time I began attending the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament as an 11-year-old kid through the 2019 ACIT, the final one I covered for the Cumberland Times-News, two things stand out as the most impactful storylines of tournament history: The dominance of the DeMatha Catholic Stags, who won a record 27 ACIT titles, and the 2007 ACIT once we learned the Philadelphia Catholic League schools would no longer be able to participate in the ACIT.

DeMatha of Hyattsville, of course, put the ACIT on the map – a national school and basketball power coached by the late Morgan Wootten, perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all-time on any level – John Wooden’s words, not mine. Whether the Stags were coached by Wootten or Mike Jones, who succeeded his former coach, DeMatha was always sublime, as kind, classy, generous and gentlemanly off the court as it was dominant and superb on the court.

The Philadelphia Catholic League schools and the entourage of family, alumni and friends who followed them here each year, thanks in largest part to former Roman Catholic, LaSalle University and St. Joseph’s Prep head coach William “Speedy” Morris, quickly became our family here in Cumberland, and we theirs, as an immediate bond between the City of Brotherly Love and the Queen City went from immediate to everlasting.

The Philadelphia schools had been coming here since the late 1960s, and for 40 years it was love at first sight between Philly and the ACIT.

In fact, one of the grandest traditions of the ACIT was the Roman Catholic hospitality room in the Downtown Holiday Inn each March, where more lifetime friendships were forged over the years than at likely any other single spot in the city of Cumberland. Roman Catholic alum and longtime booster, the late John Hoban, along with Speedy and Cumberland’s own legend, the late Bob Schubert, began that tradition in 1976, the year Morris’ Cahillites won their second straight ACIT.

In October of 2007, though, an idea that had been discussed for two years finally came to fruition when it was decided that all high schools in Pennsylvania — public and private – would join the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), meaning their athletic teams were bound to the PIAA state tournaments — meaning basketball teams from Philadelphia would no longer be permitted to play after the state tournament in invitational tournaments such as the ACIT.

The following March on the Wednesday evening of the annual ACIT Welcoming Dinner at the Holiday Inn, with three Philadelphia schools in attendance, the mood of the hotel lobby was a “Happy to be here with melancholy knowing it will be the last time we’ll be here.”

“This is it,” said Philadelphia’s legendary statistician Tom McKenna, who had been coming here every March since 1973. “It’s hard to believe this is the last one.”

“I’m disappointed,” said Speedy Morris, who was coaching The Prep. “We’re all disappointed. What this tournament means to young people … nothing compares. Nothing comes close.”

Morris began coming to the ACIT in 1969 as the coach of Roman Catholic and he built a bond with the ACIT like no other person had because if Speedy Morris and the late Joe Divico, the father of the ACIT, had not been best friends, they were brothers.

“I wasn’t for it,” Speedy said in a prickly tone of the Catholic schools joining the PIAA. “Most of the people I talked to weren’t for it. But things happen for a reason.

“We’ll miss Cumberland … a lot of great people. A lot of great memories.”

The Roman Catholic coach, Dennis Seddon, had been coming to the ACIT for 30 years himself, first as an assistant and then during his great run as the head coach of the Cahillites, coaching them to the ’90, ’93, and ’95 ACIT titles.

“Bittersweet is the word,” Seddon said as he took time away from catching up with old friends. “It’s bitter, obviously, because it’s the last time. It’s sweet, obviously, because being here means we had a great season.”

Roman indeed had a great season, finishing 28-3, and Seddon said he would love nothing more than to return to Philadelphia Sunday morning as ACIT champion for the fourth time, which he did. But for Seddon, like everybody else who used to count the days year-round for ACIT weekend, there was something more.

“It’s obvious we love the people of Cumberland,” Seddon said.

“It’s obvious,” he was told, “the people of Cumberland love you.”

“Well,” he said after clearing his throat, “I don’t want to say the basketball is secondary this weekend, but it’s all about the friendships here. We love Cumberland. We always have and we always will.”

“We’re still praying something can be settled,” he said about the possibility of coming back. “There’s a chance … but it’s very slight that it can be worked out.

“And then we go by their rules.”

Later in the evening, one of Speedy Morris’ friends from Cumberland stopped by to say he hoped Speedy’s team would win the final ACIT for Philly. If not The Prep, the friend said, one of the other Philly schools.

“Oh, it would be great,” Speedy said. “Honestly, we’re a little under-manned since we’re without our leading scorer Larry Loughery. But Roman is good enough. Neumann-Goretti is good enough. If we can’t win, those two are good enough to do it, and it would be great …

“But you can’t come back. The best part about winning the ACIT is you’re automatically invited to come back next year. It would be … the first defending champion not to come back,” he said, as his voice tailed off.

“It’s great to be here,” he said as he went into the dinner. “I never want to leave.”

As it turned out, Roman Catholic did return to the ACIT in 2008, but only on a PIAA grant as defending champ, as the Cahillites won the 2007 ACIT title by beating SS. John Neumann-Goretti in an all-Philly final in what was an absolutely beautiful stroke of poetic justice.

It was as though somebody up there had willed it to finish that way. And you never really do know, do you? After all, the ACIT was nothing but 63 years of magic.

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