ACIT’s Carter: ‘the most incredible 24 hours I can remember’
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 MIA A 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.”
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 [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT