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St. Frances a basketball power? Sound funny? Boys basketball: It's no joke. The tiny East Baltimore Catholic school with no gym may have the area's best team this season -- again.


The history of the area's best boys basketball team is less than a decade old. The team doesn't have a gym of its own and practices at an elementary school. Home games are played at a college, where the gym is on the third floor.

The thought of St. Frances becoming not only the area's top team but one of the country's up-and-coming programs probably would had drawn a lot of chuckles. Even the school's location is a mystery to some.

But guess who's having the last laugh?

While most of Baltimore high school basketball history centers around Dunbar, Lake Clifton, Southern-Baltimore, Calvert Hall and Cardinal Gibbons, the present belongs to St. Frances. It's a small Catholic school taking up a half-block on East Chase Street in the shadow the Maryland penitentiary.

Coming off a 30-4 season and its first No. 1 ranking, St. Frances will open the 1996-97 season, which officially begins this week, ranked No. 1 by The Sun and No. 7 nationally by Street & Smith's.

Last year's team won the school's second straight Catholic League regular-season and tournament championship, and the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tourney -- the first by a Baltimore school since Calvert Hall in 1981.

"It's important for our kids to get the special attention that everyone else has received in the Baltimore area and the state," said St. Frances coach William Wells, last season's All-Metro boys Coach of the Year. "It's important for the kids to see what level that we've come from, and where we can go as a team and as a family."

Approximately 250 students attend St. Frances, the nation's oldest black Catholic school, which was founded in 1828. Last year's graduating class had 30 students. The school, which also is fielding varsity wrestling and baseball teams this school year, has had basketball for only eight seasons.

"They have done a great job," said Lake Clifton coach Charlie Moore, whose team is ranked No. 14 in the nation by Street & Smith's. "They're the new kid on the block. We're talking about parity now, with St. Frances being one of the best in the city. It's good for the city."

After winning three Catholic Youth League titles in the early 1980s, St. Frances joined the Catholic League in the 1986-87 season. The next season, the Panthers won the JV championship. In 1989-90, they were varsity tournament champions, the first of three league-tournament titles.

All of this has happened with St. Frances playing its home games at the University of Baltimore and practicing at Thomas Hayes Elementary School, next to Dunbar High, or at Madison Square Recreation Center in East Baltimore, where Wells has been the site director since 1974.

His recreation basketball program has produced numerous talented players who attended other high schools. Going to St. Frances, a school with no gymnasium and basketball tradition, wasn't an attractive option. Wells remembers the words of a friend shortly after he began coaching at St. Frances.

"He told me that I was fooling myself by going to St. Frances because I wasn't going to produce anything there because the school doesn't have a gym, it's in the inner-city, and things like that," said Wells, sitting in a game room at Madison Square.

"Those kinds of words motivated me," he continued. "If you tell me I can don't it, I'm going to find a way to do it. I'm not going to cheat or steal, but I'm going to get it done."

Wells quietly began building a winning program, and St. Frances was no longer an afterthought. Over the last two seasons, St. Frances has gone 53-9; it's 201-80 since 1986-87.

"Everybody wanted me to go to Dunbar, but I looked at it not as far as basketball, but education," said senior forward Mark Karcher, last season's boys All-Metro Player of the Year, who orally committed to Villanova but later said he would sign with either Villanova or Maryland in the spring. "I wanted to go to a school to make my grandmother happy, and St. Frances was the perfect choice."

Added Wells, a graduate of Dunbar High and Towson State University: "A lot of people feared sending their child to St. Frances because of the surroundings, but once you get inside the building, they will find a lot of love and a great educational opportunity. We have a lot of kids grow and change their lives around."

While St. Frances has had standouts like Karcher and Devin Gray, a 1991 first-team All-Metro who led the Panthers to their first Catholic League Tournament title and is now playing pro ball for Sioux Falls of the Continental Basketball Association, Wells said each player's dedication to the team concept is important.

"There is no 'I' in team," said Wells, who is 51. "The fact of the matter is that we all got to make it work for us. Nobody is going to give it to us. We have to earn it, and the kids respect that."

Wells said his program still hasn't won the basketball community's total respect, but it has been on the national scene, playing at the Reebok Las Vegas Shoot-Out, the Slam Dunk-to-the-Beach in Delaware, the DeMatha Invitational at the USAir Arena and the Hill City Shootout in Virginia.

The question remains whether the small school can hold its place with the city's traditional powers.

"You will always have up and down years," said Wells. "I think we will be a main-stay. We will be in the middle or above, and if we slip to the bottom, then there's something we haven't done."

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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