The Washington Post

Md. private schools embrace a new basketball tournament that fills a void


This past week, the Bullis Bulldogs — recently crowned champions of the Interstate Athletic Conference — got back to work. Now that conference play is complete, they are preparing to compete in a newly formed postseason event: the Maryland Private School State Basketball Tournament. With something more to play for, Bruce Kelley has noticed his team is practicing hard and feeling just fine — no championsh­ip hangover in sight.

“[Effort] has not been a problem this year,” the longtime coach said. “The guys know there are some really good teams [in that bracket], and we still have some things we want to prove. Things are noticeably turned up even from the last time we had an event like this.”

In the D.C. area, most strong teams are offered multiple levels of playoff basketball. Public schools in Maryland or Virginia can advance from region brackets to the state tournament. The top teams in Washington, both public and private, are offered spots in the D.C. State Athletic Associatio­n tournament after conference play is complete. Virginia private schools face off in the Virginia Independen­t Schools Athletic Associatio­n playoffs, a four-tiered system that has been in place for decades.

In the past 10 years, there have been previous iterations of a Maryland state tournament for private schools, but they were inconsiste­nt and sometimes disorganiz­ed. Last season, there was none.

Marc Stern noticed that void in Maryland. As the president of Capitol Hoops — a popular media outlet covering high school basketball — and the organizer of several showcase events, Stern was approached by coaches and fans several times last season about forming a new state playoff tournament. In November, deciding it was worth a shot, he connected with three friends.

That was how four local media members came to organize the latest postseason addition to the high school basketball scene.

Stern is joined by Houston Wilson (director of recruiting and evaluation for NBA star Chris Paul’s camp), Colby Giacubeno (a scout for and Marcus Helton (editor in chief of and event organizer) as coordinato­rs of this new event.

“People talk about all of this high school talent here in the DMV, so for no one to be able to call themselves a state champion at a private school in Maryland was just kind of mind-boggling to me,” Wilson said.

There will be 12 teams in the Maryland bracket this season. Eight of them earned automatic bids by winning or being the highest-qualified finisher in their conference:

• Bullis (IAC).

• Dematha ( Washington Catholic Athletic Conference).

• Glenelg Country (Maryland Interschol­astic Athletic Associatio­n A).

• Mt. Zion Prep (Metro Private School Conference).

• Riverdale Baptist (Maryland Independen­t School Athletic League).

• Sandy Spring Friends (Potomac Valley Athletic Conference).

• St. Andrew’s (Mid-atlantic Athletic Conference).

• St. Mary’s of Annapolis (Maryland Interschol­astic Athletic Associatio­n B).

Four more earned an at-large bid: Bishop Mcnamara, Good Counsel, Landon and Shabach Christian.

Schools from the popular and talent-packed Baltimore Catholic League are not eligible this season because of a scheduling conflict. The organizers hope to eventually expand the scope of this event. They would like to add a girls’ tournament next winter.

The first step in creating an event out of nothing was gathering contact info. The group sent emails to private schools indicating they may be eligible for the tournament and offering them a contract that stated they would participat­e if chosen. Roughly 40 schools sent back a signed contract.

“The goal is to have inclusion from every corner of the state possible. And in a year or two, hopefully we have 24 or 32 teams,” Stern said. “We tried to reach out to every private school in the state, but I don’t even know how we’d know if we accomplish­ed that goal because there’s so many small schools that no one writes about or aren’t listed on websites.”

Next came picking dates and venues. Timing was crucial; early March is ripe with postseason events in the D.C. area. The Maryland tournament will hold its first round Tuesday, the quarterfin­als Wednesday, the semifinals Sunday and the championsh­ip game next Monday. The group is proud to say the event is the only thing on the local high school calendar in Maryland next Monday night. The quarterfin­als, semifinals and championsh­ip game will be broadcast online by the PAC West Group.

Finding the right venues proved to be a challenge. The organizers talked with local universiti­es, community colleges and high schools, looking for something with the right size and price. Eventually they settled on Bullis to host the quarterfin­als and semifinals and Takoma Academy to host the championsh­ip.

Giacubeno said Stern’s and Helton’s reputation­s as event organizers helped the group overcome its lack of a major sponsor or affiliatio­n: “People have known them for so long and they do such great work that people were like, ‘Cool, we’re in.’ ”

Even with that experience, the group found the planning process to be a whole new challenge. They hope that all those Zoom calls fretting over details will be worth it.

“We’ve been able to draw a lot on that organizing experience, but it is a different beast than a lot of events I’ve done,” Helton said. “There’s so many little details and minutiae that goes into stuff like this. Who are we going to have doing the table at this gym? How about the door? Who’s going to provide balls for warmups? What about trainers? There’s so many things people don’t think about when they just go to the game and watch.”

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