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Stopped short

The St. James Invitational Tournament was brought to an end before its 30th anniversary

The St. James Invitational Tournament was brought to an end before its 30th anniversary

February 10, 2003|by MARK KELLER

keller@herald-mail.com

Like many other area basketball fans, Chick Meehan will feel like there's something missing on Thursday.

For the longtime coach and athletic director at St. James School, it had become a tradition for him to put in three long days in mid-February to ensure that the St. James Invitational Tournament went off without a hitch.

"It actually wasn't so bad the last couple of years because I didn't have a lot to do with running the tournament," Meehan said. "So I actually got to watch some of the games, which was nice."

That won't be the case next weekend, however, because there are no games to plan, no games to watch.

St. James announced last September that there would be no St. James Invitational Tournament, bringing to an end after 29 years one of the most successful and anticipated high school basketball tournaments on the East Coast.

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"I think a lot of people are disappointed that it won't be played," said former St. James coach Wayne Ridenour. "It was an opportunity to see some of the best players in the country without driving all over God's green acre to see them. It definitely put Hagerstown on the map as far as basketball goes."

When the decision was made to cancel the tournament, St. James athletic director Paul Salit cited rising tournament costs against diminished returns, a heavy workload on staff and administration in preparing for the tournament and an imbalance in gender equity by holding such a large-scale event only for one of the school's boys programs.

Thomas Johnson coach Tom Dickman, whose team holds the distinction of being the last SJIT champion, expressed frustration at the cancellation, forcing him to scramble to find games to fill the three open dates on his schedule.

He was also disappointed the Patriots would not get to defend their title.

"The kids always liked playing there. I think it was a big deal for Hagerstown, too. It's a shame that it had to end," Dickman said in September.

The SJIT began in 1974 primarily as a regional tournament, drawing teams from Hagerstown, Frederick, Emmittsburg, Easton, Severna Park and Harrisburg, Pa.

The tournament grew in scale slowly through the 1970s and early 80s, drawing more teams from the Baltimore-Washington area, but the growth was limited by the size of Cotton Gym, which only held about 400 people.

"That gym had three-tier bleachers on one side and no seats on the other," Meehan said. "We knew a lot of people wouldn't come because they knew that they couldn't get in."

Meehan said former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom arrived on campus one year to find the gym locked because it had reached capacity. Odom was sneaked in with a sponsor's pass.

Interest in the tournament boomed in 1984 when Hagerstown native Dennis Scott returned home as a freshman on Stu Vetter's Flint Hill (Va.) team. Beginning in 1987, the SJIT was able to accommodate more fans with the opening of Alumni Hall, a new gym on the St. James campus.

"Flint Hill and Stu Vetter really made the tournament big," Meehan said. "When Stu started bringing his teams in here, they were nationally ranked, they had guys going to Division I schools, people started to take notice."

Scott was an all-tournament team selection all four years he played at the SJIT, joining St. James' Don Anderson as the only players to accomplish that feat in the history of the tournament.

Vetter later returned as head coach of St. John's at Prospect Hall, which he led to the No. 1 ranking in the country in 1998, and again with Montrose Christian, the team he now has in the national rankings. He coached 12 SJIT champions, far more than any other coach.

Scott was the first in a long line of marquee players to appear in the SJIT, which brought in more fans and a number of coaches and recruiters from big and small colleges alike.

"It's mind-boggling, the talent that came through there," Ridenour said. "The teams that Stu brought in were incredible. And I've watched basketball for 30 years and still think the Oak Hill team with (Jerry) Stackhouse was the best I've ever seen."

The SJIT was also a place where kids who had yet to appear on the radar screens of major colleges could make an impression in front of the recruiting specialist.

One example was Avery Queen, generously listed as a 5-foot-6 sophomore point guard for St. James in 1998. Certainly not impressive with his height, Queen wowed the crowds - and recruiting services - with his ball handling skills and his blinding quickness. He eventually found his way to the University of Michigan, where he was the starting point guard for two seasons.

"No doubt the tournament helped a lot of our kids," Ridenour said. "Jared (Knotts), Larry (Scott) and 'Q' (Queen) ... it helped all of them. It's exposure - an opportunity for coaches to see a lot of people at one time."

With the amount of money schools are now seeking to appear in tournaments, the chances of a high-profile tournament like the SJIT returning to the Tri-State are slim. Then again, what was the likelihood of the SJIT growing to the level that it did?

"It would be tough to do it again," Ridenour said. "We were lucky because we had commitments from good people like Stu and (Oak Hill's) Steve Smith. I'm not sure that could be done again because you have to pay so much for those teams."

So the SJIT will just have to live on in the memories of the thousands of people who were drawn to the small St. James campus every February for three days of pure, unadulterated high school basketball action.

"I loved the tournament. There are a lot of memories of a lot of great players," Meehan said. "It was pretty good."

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