State secret: Catonsville CC; Basketball: Obscure except to opponents, the 20-2 Cardinals show they can play and beat the top Division II junior colleges in the country.


The men's basketball team at Catonsville Community College did its duty one Monday night last month and cast a shadow over another Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference foe.

The Cardinals defeated perennial power Allegany College for the first time in 22 years Jan. 11, but hardly anyone noticed.

"We expected to beat Allegany, but in terms of publicity we don't get the attention some of the other schools do," said Catonsville coach Luke D'Alessio.

Actually, the Cardinals have been piling up victories since the 1995-96 season. They have won at least 24 games the past three seasons, twice winning the Maryland JuCo Tournament and advancing to the Division II national tournament. And Catonsville is making the most of this season, too.

With Monday's 100-83 win over Chesapeake, Catonsville (20-2) remained the only unbeaten team in the MJCAC at 14-0 and ran its winning streak to 13 games. Along the way, the Cardinals, who are ranked No. 3 nationally in the NJCAA Division II poll, also have shown the polish of one of the nation's top-ranked teams, beating two of the country's top four teams last week -- Prince George's Community College (then No. 2) and Cecil CC (then No. 4).

If Catonsville wins its last three games, it will join Allegany and Hagerstown as the only schools to win the MJCAC regular-season title in the last 10 years.

"The past couple of weeks have let us know that we are just as good or better than some of the bigger name schools out there," said Terrell Smith, a 6-foot-2 sophomore guard from Edmondson and the team's second- leading scorer averaging 17.5 points.

Numbers and records aside, what makes Catonsville's story more illuminating is that D'Alessio has revitalized a program without the benefit of full athletic scholarships. As a Division II program, Catonsville can only offer tuition aid, and without on-campus housing some players have an hour or more commute. It's a hard sell, but D'Alessio has nonetheless managed to draw several first-rate high school players to build around.

One of those is Tyree Locke, whose brother Kyle, a former player at Coppin State, helped lure Tyree to Catonsville. Equally adept at scoring on the perimeter or in the post, Locke, a 6-6 sophomore guard out of John Bartram High in Philadelphia, leads the team with 19.5 points a game and is likely to become the fourth All-American in Cardinals' history.

"Mentally, I've matured a lot since last season," said Locke, who has drawn interest from Massachusetts, Western Michigan and Coppin, among others. "I see things now before they happen and work hard to get everyone involved."

But it is more than Locke who moves the Cardinals. Smith is shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc and he has 88 points, including a school-record 10 three-pointers against Prince George's, in the last three games.

Sophomore point guard Eric Evans (Lake Clifton) averages 15.0 points and his 135 assists rank second in the league. And Germaine "Boo" Diggs (Annapolis) might be the most welcome addition. A sophomore transfer from Allegany, the 6-5 Diggs leads the team with 11.0 rebounds a game.

"We have a lot of guys who can play multiple positions," D'Alessio said, "so we can go small, quick, big, or with more shooters."

Said Locke: "We have players with experience. Guys from good high school programs that are used to winning."

The way the Cardinals play defense, they often don't need their average of 91.0 points. Catonsville's frenetic full-court pressure forces on average 25 turnovers and results in higher quality shots, particularly in transition.

"A lot of teams don't expect us to play full-court defense the whole game," Smith said. "But that's our style."

"We want to wear out teams by the last 10 minutes of the game," said D'Alessio, who was an assistant at Catholic University for six years before coming to Catonsville in 1993. "Our emphasis is to never get out-worked by anyone. With the way we play defense, you can't get beat by the guy with the ball."

The Cardinals have seemingly spent the last 10 years trying to earn the attention of their Maryland JuCo brethren. Now, the focus isn't on drawing even with the likes of Allegany and Hagerstown. It's about getting even.

"A lot of teams have beaten Catonsville for so long," said Smith, "but now we feel we're the team everyone is out to catch."

Added D'Alessio, "In the beginning, it was hard for me to get kids to come here because of our bad reputation, in terms of winning. But we're at the point now where we're competing with the larger schools to get recruits."

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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