SJIT notes - Oak Hill has brass ring, wants championship ring

February 12, 2001|By MARK KELLER and DAN SPEARSs

SJIT notes - Oak Hill has brass ring, wants championship ring

ST. JAMES - Even before Saturday night's 95-77 victory over Newport School to win the 28th Annual St. James Invitational Tournament, the players and coaches for Oak Hill Academy have been talking about the mythical national championship.


For one of the top-ranked Warriors, the battle is over. For their coach, it's almost there.

"We've got it, we're going to win it," said guard Rashaad Carruth, the tournament's most valuable player. "Call up the ring people now. We're going to get fitted for the rings."

His coach, Steve Smith, isn't as confident as the outspoken Carruth, but there is that gleam in his eye as his team now stands 28-0 with five games to play.

"We talked about it, and we thought (the SJIT championship) would be the last tough road game of the year for us," Smith said. "Our goal is to get to the last two games at home. If they know they're that close ... I don't think you're going to see them get beat."


Oak Hill has gone perfect three times under Smith: 1989-90, 1992-93 and 1997-98. He knows a fourth is no guarantee.

"It's hard, even though we've done it three times in 16 years," Smith said. "One slip up and you've lost it all."

Comeback trail

In the span of one year, St. John's at Prospect Hall went from the very top of the high school basketball world to the depths of the Tri-State area standings.

After winning the mythical national championship under Stu Vetter in 1998, the small Frederick County private school chose to take the program in a different direction by de-emphasizing basketball.

Vetter resigned as the head coach and longtime assistant Kevin Sutton took most of the school's prized recruits 30 minutes east to Montrose Christian in Rockville.

In the meantime, St. John's brought in Bruce Kelley, a former assistant coach at American University, to pick up the pieces after players the likes of Damien Wilkins, Sherrod Teasley, Marvin Lewis and Mohamed Diakite defected.

Kelley has done an admirable job, to say the least.

After a rough first season, St. John's bounced back with an 18-14 season in 2000 and are 17-6 this year.

The days of national rankings are likely gone for St. John's, along with the days of recruiting players from all over the country. The administration at St. John's wants the program to be filled with local kids and that seems to suit Kelley just fine.

"The headmaster wants to keep it local, and I want to coach kids who are going to be around," Kelley said. "I won't say we could never be a national power, but not on a consistent basis ... maybe more a regional power. We want to be the best in Frederick County."

The Vikings returned to the SJIT this year and immediately faced off against a national power - the aforementioned Montrose Christian, now in its second season with Vetter as head coach. Montrose knocked St. John's into the consolation bracket of the tournament, but not without a fight.

St. John's beat Thomas Johnson in the consolation round and, in doing so, announced to Frederick County and the rest of the Tri-State area that 'The Hall' is again a force to be reckoned with.

"We played three tough teams on three consecutive nights and showed that we belong," Kelley said. "We had so much fun this weekend. We stayed and watched the other games and the kids were a part of it. This was a great experience for us."

Patriotic effort

TJ needed a fire-and-brimstone halftime speech and an 18-0 run in the second half to beat St. James and avoid its first three-game losing streak since going 0-3 in the 1998 SJIT.

"It feels good, and it certainly looks a lot better than going 0-3," said Joe Higbee, who scored 13 straight points for the Patriots in the fourth quarter of their 63-55 win on Saturday. "This will do a lot for our confidence the rest of the way."

More important than the way 0-3 would have looked is what 0-3 would have done to TJ in the Class 3A West standings.

The top of the 3A West standings is tight, with TJ among five teams, including North Hagerstown, vying for the four seeded spots in the region. The odd team out gets thrown into the lottery machine with the other teams in the region, their playoff fate decided strictly by chance.

"It means a lot. The first three teams in our region get a bye, and we would certainly like to have one of those byes," said TJ coach Tom Dickman.

Interested watcher

Montrose Christian coach Stu Vetter had an odd seat for Saturday night's championship - in the stands. It marked only the second time a Vetter team hasn't been in the final. The other was in 1988 when Vetter coached at Flint Hill.

"Actually, I'm getting loosened up to go out there right now," Vetter joked after his Mustangs won the third-place game. "It's a funny thing, because I didn't even realize that. My brother pointed that out to me (Friday).

"I can't explain (the success). It's just a great tournament and the people up here do a great job with it."

What could have been

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