An Allegany Radio Corporation Sports Column By Mike Burke

ACIT goes independent, invites St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes

MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

CUMBERLAND — St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, an independent Episcopal coed college preparatory school in Alexandria, Va., will be represented by its boys basketball team at the 60th Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, March 12-14, at Frostburg State University.

This is news because it will mark the first ACIT appearance for the school that was created from the 1991 merger of St. Agnes School and St. Stephen’s School and consists of three campuses within a 1.5-mile radius.

It is also news because the Saints (13-2), the No. 5-ranked boys basketball team in the Washington, D.C. area, will be the first team from a non-Catholic school to play in the Catholic event, which is the second-longest running high school basketball tournament in the country behind only the Indiana state tournament.

“This remains and will always remain a Catholic tournament,” said ACIT general chairman Joe Carter, now in his 17th year, having succeeded the tournament founder, the late Joe Divico, in 2004. “We just feel we got as much out of Washington and Baltimore (the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and the Baltimore Catholic League) as we could get.

“In most instances, the teams from both of those leagues that come to us have already played against each other three, four, maybe five times by the time they even get here. That’s why we decided at the last minute to rearrange the Day 3 schedule last year. Those teams were tired of playing each other, and I understood that completely.”

The ACIT has contracts with the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and the Baltimore Catholic League, taking the champions of each conference as well as the WCAC runner-up. The defending ACIT champion as well as host school Bishop Walsh also receive automatic invitations.

For years, the ACIT brought in the top Catholic teams from all over the country, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Utah, Texas and even Canada. Yet through the years the tournament has become handcuffed by travel and postseason tournament restrictions by most states.

The Philadelphia Catholic League, for instance, an ACIT fixture for decades, made its final appearance here in 2008 as the state’s Catholic schools joined the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), meaning their athletic teams became bound to the PIAA state tournaments and were no longer permitted to play after the state tournament or in invitational tournaments such as the ACIT.

“So,” Carter said, “we decided it was time to select three at-large schools that didn’t have to be Catholic; but not the ‘prep-prep’ schools that get entirely new teams in every year.

“We called Glenn Farello (Paul VI head coach) and Steve Turner (Gonzaga Catholic) for some input, and what they told us led us to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes.”

DeMatha Catholic, of Hyattsville, and Cumberland’s Bishop Walsh are set for the field as well, the Stags as defending champion, and the Spartans as the tournament host school.

“We would like for our tournament to be at the point where we have five teams ranked in the national top 25 every year,” Carter said. “Well, last time I looked, there were four ranked in the top 25 from D.C. alone, so this year could still be four from D.C., BW, one Baltimore and two at-large, which could lead us to move around the Day 3 schedule again.

“We’re looking for quality teams with big-time players, and as we’ve known for quite some time, the Washington Catholic league is the toughest league in the country. Those teams just get after each other every night.

“Ideally, we’d like to have three D.C., three at-large, Baltimore and Bishop Walsh. But if four teams from D.C. are in the top 25, that’s as good as you can do. Which ain’t too shabby. But we’ll see.”

In the most recent ESPN top 25, DeMatha is ranked No. 5, St. John’s College No. 8, Paul VI No. 13, and Gonzaga No. 22. From Baltimore, St. Frances of the Baltimore Catholic League is No. 10 and Baltimore Poly of the MPSSAA is No. 24.

Regionally, St. Frances is the No. 1-ranked team in Baltimore, while in Washington the rankings run DeMatha (11-2), St. John’s (14-2), Paul VI (9-3), Gonzaga (11-4) and St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, one through five respectively.

Currently, the ACIT has been following a team from New York and one from South Carolina, according to Carter.

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 mike.burke@alleganyradio.com or on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT