At 50, The Game is likely to be even more intense than usual

The 50th edition of The Game, between Mercy and IND girls, is set for SECU Arena at Towson Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Institute of Notre Dame guard Amber Kappner-Jones has played twice in the Penguins' annual rivalry game against Mercy, known simply as The Game, so she knows what's coming when she steps onto the court before thousands of screaming fans.

Still, she expects this year's game, Friday night at SECU Arena, to be crazier than usual.

"I hope it is," she said with a laugh. "And I think it will be, because everyone knows it's the 50th and a whole bunch of alumnae will come back. It would mean a lot to win it considering all the history behind it and to win such a big game as a senior would make it even better."

Mercy forward Katelin Holt agreed.

"It's really exhilarating," the senior said. "It's one of the biggest rivalries ever and the fact that it's the 50th anniversary, everybody will come, all the alumnae, and that makes me feel really special. One of the reasons I chose Mercy was I wanted to be part of this tradition."

Kappner-Jones and Holt said they feel honored to play in The Game.

The rivalry began at the Civic Center, now Royal Farms Arena, in 1967, and it has evolved into an event that has drawn more than 4,000 fans in some years. Last winter, more than 2,000 turned out to see the Penguins beat the Magic, 41-34.

The experience is like none other in local high school girls sports. IND coach Robert DuBose says whenever IND and Mercy play, it's as if everyone in the gym has just downed a 5-hour energy drink.

The sustained intensity level in the stands might exceed that of the players on the court. The decibel level is deafening, with one side of the gym dressed in IND blue and the other in Mercy red. Every basket and every break in the action is punctuated by the faithful cheering at the top of their lungs.

"We're so lucky because I don't know any other high school around that has such a huge rivalry where so many people come," Kappner-Jones said. "I especially think we're lucky considering that we're girls that a whole bunch of people come out to see. Girls sports don't get as much shine as guys sports do."

When Kappner-Jones and Holt, last year's Players of The Game, take the court with their teammates, they expect the usual hard-fought game. The fact that IND has won the past two editions of The Game, and also won the first meeting of the season in December, doesn't mean much.

"I feel like the first time we played them, they had more momentum," Holt said. "They're a good team and I just feel me and my team have our days when we're off and they're always united and have good communication. Friday, we definitely have to communicate and just play our game."

Kappner-Jones said her team won't take the Magic lightly. In such an intense rivalry, either team can win despite the records. At 11-6 with the 54-31 win last month, IND is favored. Mercy is 2-14.

"We just have to play together as a team, as one unit," she said. "I'm a little nervous because last week we had exams and with the snow, we haven't had practice this week, because school's been out, so we'll really have to come together when we do get back."

The Penguins, who had not practiced or played from Jan. 15 to Thursday, found as many ways as possible to stay in shape over the snow break, including running on treadmills and doing cardio routines sent to them by DuBose. The Magic, who hadn't been together since Jan. 21, tried to do the same.

Holt was excited Tuesday night when coach Steve Anderson texted the players that they would have practice Wednesday.

"I can only dribble a ball so much here at home," she said with a laugh.

Both DuBose and Anderson said one of the keys to keeping the players focused is routine. They hoped to bring that back into line before The Game.

"Just getting to practice is routine," DuBose said. "Once you step on the court for those two hours, we're just rolling and when they get through it, all they can think about is homework and sleep. It keeps them focused on what they have to do on the court."

While DuBose coached in The Game last year, this is Anderson's first season at Mercy. The former Archbishop Spalding assistant coach said he doesn't know exactly what to expect on the sideline, but he has been to The Game before.

"As a fan of women's basketball, I needed to understand what this game was that everybody was talking about," said Anderson, who first went about five years ago.

"When I was at Spalding, I was like, 'I'm going to Towson and there's going to be 4,000 people watching Mercy and IND? Somebody help me understand that.' I watched the kids play and more than anything else, it's the tradition, it's the history. Girls schools have a tradition of excellence in education and it's just a way to showcase their tradition of excellence on the basketball court."

The buildup to The Game begins in school and with school closed most of the week, all the players were disappointed to miss some of the daily festivities, but they will still have their pep rallies on Friday. After that, they will retire for a meal together and a little down time before they head to SECU Arena for the 7:30 tip.

About that time the nerves will really begin to kick in, but Kappner-Jones and Holt said, they can't wait to get on the court.

Neither can Mercy freshman Ada Tempert, who has her own little rivalry going with her sister, Kiley, who went to IND.

"I've gone to The Game many years past, but this is the first time I'll be rooting for Mercy," she said. "I'm really nervous for the actual game, because I've played basketball before but never at this high of a level and intensity. It's nerve-wracking but I want to be out there to help my team."

While Tempert will return to play in The Game a few more times, Kappner-Jones and Holt want to finish their careers with the lifelong bragging rights that would come with victory in the 50th edition. They realize they likely will never have another experience like it.

"I'll definitely cherish every moment of it," Kappner-Jones said.

The Game

What: Mercy vs. Institute of Notre Dame's 50th rivalry game

When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: SECU Arena, Towson

Series record: Mercy leads 30-19

Ticket information: $15 at the door


FRIDAY: Mike Klingaman on the history of The Game

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