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‘It really is different’: Baltimore Catholic League celebrates 50 years of basketball stars, coaches and kinship

From left, Mark Karcher of St. Frances (1997), Immanuel Quickley of John Carroll (2015) and Carmelo Anthony of Towson Catholic (2001) are some of the biggest stars to play in the Baltimore Catholic League.
From left, Mark Karcher of St. Frances (1997), Immanuel Quickley of John Carroll (2015) and Carmelo Anthony of Towson Catholic (2001) are some of the biggest stars to play in the Baltimore Catholic League.

Mark Karcher has the 1994 Baltimore Catholic League championship game tucked away in the back of his mind, available to be revisited at any given time.

He made an immediate impact as a freshman at St. Frances, but the Panthers came up short against a talented Cardinal Gibbons team led by senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski, who later starred at Duke and is now head coach at Marquette.

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“Losing that game kind of opened up my eyes,” said Karcher, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2000 after a successful career at Temple and played seven years of professional basketball. “I was young and I was playing a lot and I didn’t realize what the league was all about at that time until we reached the championship game and lost. That made me want to get back to the championship game and it kind of placed ourselves in history.”

A dominant 6-foot-5 forward, Karcher went on to lead the Panthers to the next three BCL crowns, earning tournament Most Valuable Player in each of the years. His St. Frances teams of the mid-1990′s provided just one of the many chapters in the history of the BCL, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary with two season-opening games Wednesday.

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The league’s star players, legendary coaches and historic teams are well-documented in its Hall of Fame, which was established in 2011. However, it’s the camaraderie and memories — now a half-century’s worth — that prove to be the storied league’s foundation.

“It really is different,” said Cardinal Gibbons graduate Josh Davalli, who was part of the 1994 championship team and is entering his 15th season as coach at Loyola Blakefield. “Everyone all has their own stories who have played in the league and I think they all have their own perspective on it as far as their experiences and teams they were on. But the names we all talk about as BCL alums are very similar, like Rodney Monroe from Goretti always comes back in conversations and the Mark Karchers and Juan Dixons … Guys like them, they’re all part of the same conversation that — whether it was 30 years ago or today — everybody remembers the guys we played with and against. And that’s something special.

“It’s a group of people that have an affinity to the league and each other.”

From left, 2019 Baltimore Catholic League awards winners Rajeir Jones of St. Frances, Mitchell Fischer of Loyola Blakefield, James Bishop of Mount Saint Joseph and coach Josh Davalli of Loyola Blakefield pose during the annual league banquet.
From left, 2019 Baltimore Catholic League awards winners Rajeir Jones of St. Frances, Mitchell Fischer of Loyola Blakefield, James Bishop of Mount Saint Joseph and coach Josh Davalli of Loyola Blakefield pose during the annual league banquet. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Starting out when six schools left the Maryland Scholastic Association in 1971, the BCL has made its mark in local high school basketball. While schools have come and gone — Towson Catholic and Cardinals Gibbons closed in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and Archbishop Curley left in 1997 — it continues to produce highly competitive play and quality talent for the next level and beyond.

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Mark Rohde, a 1972 Loyola Blakefield graduate, was part of the first BCL championship team. He was quick to credit the league’s early coaches — his Loyola coach Jerry Savage, Gibbons’ Ray Mullis, Calvert Hall’s Mark Amatucci, Mount Saint Joseph’s Gene Nieberlein Sr. and St. Frances William Wells, among others — as paving the way for the league’s successful run.

“When I was a senior, people drove through Baltimore for the most part to get from D.C. to Philly to recruit high school kids. And I think really starting with the Jerry Savage era, then it became a must stop,” Rohde said. “It’s a testament to all the schools. They were academically sound players that you had to recruit, and once you got them on your college team, they were fundamentally sound.

“You look at some of the great college players that have come out of the BCL and you’re like, ‘Wow, I was part of that.’ We’ve just been blessed with longtime coaches who coaching is a vocation and not a job, and they’ve done a phenomenal job.”

Some of the inductees to the Baltimore Catholic League Hall of Fame, from left, are Carl Fornoff, Mark Rohde, Sam McGee, Rob Valderas, Coach Cokey Robertson, Adrian Hubbard, Juan Dixon, Morris Cannon, Danny Witt and Gene Nieberlein Jr. They were honored at a ceremony at the Rolling Road Country Club.
Some of the inductees to the Baltimore Catholic League Hall of Fame, from left, are Carl Fornoff, Mark Rohde, Sam McGee, Rob Valderas, Coach Cokey Robertson, Adrian Hubbard, Juan Dixon, Morris Cannon, Danny Witt and Gene Nieberlein Jr. They were honored at a ceremony at the Rolling Road Country Club. (Amy Davis, The Baltimore Sun)

Every decade has churned out standouts, from Quintin Dailey (Cardinal Gibbons, 1979) and Rodney Monroe (St. Maria Goretti, 1987) in the late 1970′s and ’80′s, to Karcher, Wojciechowski and Juan Dixon (Calvert Hall, 1998) in the ’90s to Rudy Gay (Archbishop Spalding, 2004) and Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic, 2002) in the early 2000′s to recent stars Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph, 2018) and Immanuel Quickley (John Carroll, 2018).

In November’s NBA draft, Smith (No. 10, Phoenix Suns) and Quickley (No. 25, New York Knicks) became the first two BCL players in the same class to be selected in the first round.

“I always looked up to the older guys that came through the BCL before me and then when I got the opportunity to play, we had some great competition with teams like Mount Saint Joe and players like Juan,” Karcher said. “So there’s definitely a lot of history there and the competition was always there each and every game, no matter who you were playing.

“It helped me get ready for the next level just the way everything was set up. When I got to [Temple] everything was not easy, but I kind of knew what to expect.”

Mount Saint Joseph's Jalen Smith, right, defends John Carroll's Immanuel Quickley during a BCL game in 2018. Smith and Quickley were both picked in the first round of the 2020 NBA draft.
Mount Saint Joseph's Jalen Smith, right, defends John Carroll's Immanuel Quickley during a BCL game in 2018. Smith and Quickley were both picked in the first round of the 2020 NBA draft. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The 50th anniversary season opens Wednesday with defending league champion St. Frances visiting Archbishop Spalding and John Carroll hosting Mount Saint Joseph.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the eight league teams will only play each other once during the regular season instead of twice. The regular season will continue through March 17 with the tournament quarterfinal round set for March 22, followed by the semifinals March 24 and championship game March 26.

“[The 50th season] is kind of bittersweet because I’d like to see it with a full schedule and everything that goes with it,” BCL commissioner Jack Degele said. “But as far as the kids and being able to get something going safely and not have an interruption, I think that’s special and I’m just glad we’re able to put it together to keep the tradition going.”

2021 Baltimore Catholic League schedule

All times TBA

Wednesday, Feb. 17

Mount St. Joseph at John Carroll

St. Frances at Archbishop Spalding

Friday, Feb. 19

Archbishop Spalding at Mount St. Joseph

Loyola at Mount Carmel

St. Maria Goretti at St. Frances

Monday, Feb. 22

St. Frances at Loyola

Archbishop Spalding at John Carroll

Wednesday, Feb. 24

John Carroll at St. Frances

Loyola at Mount St. Joseph

St. Maria Goretti at Archbishop Spalding

Friday, Feb. 26

John Carroll at Loyola

Calvert Hall at St. Maria Goretti

Monday, March 1

Loyola at Archbishop Spalding

St. Maria Goretti at John Carroll

Wednesday, March 3

Mount Carmel at St. Maria Goretti

Friday, March 5

Calvert Hall at Mount Carmel

St. Maria Goretti at Loyola

Monday, March 8

Mount St. Joseph at Mount Carmel

St. Frances at Calvert Hall

Wednesday, March 10

Calvert Hall at Mount St. Joseph

Friday, March 12

Archbishop Spalding at Mount Carmel

John Carroll at Calvert Hall

Mount St. Joseph at St. Maria Goretti

Monday, March 15

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Calvert Hall at Archbishop Spalding

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Mount Carmel at St. Frances

Wednesday, March 17

Calvert Hall at Loyola

Mount Carmel at John Carroll

Mount St. Joseph at St. Frances

Monday, March 22

Tournament (First round — at higher seeds)

Wednesday, March 24

Tournament (Semifinals — site TBA)

Friday, March 26

Tournament (Championship — site TBA)

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