The ride to Frostburg State was uncharacteristically quiet that March day in 1982, and Calvert Hall basketball coach Mark Amatucci was a bit alarmed.
Throughout the season, his Cardinals weren’t all laughs and jokes before games, but they were always loose.
Not this time.
On the day they were finally getting a crack at mighty DeMatha in the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament championship game — and with it, a chance to complete a perfect season as the country’s No. 1-ranked team — Amatucci could have heard a pin drop in the school van.
“I didn’t know how to take it,” he said. “But I made up my mind that we were going to approach the game as we normally do. The bottom line was everybody knew what was at stake: You lose this one, it doesn’t matter that you won the first 33.”
The Cardinals went about their business as they had all season, overcoming every obstacle with team play that was both gritty and polished to dethrone the tournament’s five-time defending champion.
The scoreboard read: Calvert Hall 82, DeMatha 76.
With the victory, the season-long mission was accomplished.
To commemorate the Baltimore Catholic League’s 50th season, The Baltimore Sun recognizes the 1981-82 Calvert Hall Cardinals — 34-0 and national champions — as the league’s all-time greatest team.
“Individually, they were stars. But as a team, everyone had a specific role in achieving greatness and they were a confident and selfless bunch,” Amatucci said. “Whatever the definition of family might be, this group epitomized that true definition. To say they were special is an understatement, the likes of which will never be duplicated.”
From the beginning, the Cardinals showed they had the goods to achieve greatness.
Their gifted senior backcourt pair — point guard James “Pop” Tubman and shooting guard Marc Wilson — grew up best friends. Up front, senior forward Paul Edwards brought do-everything skills, sophomore center Duane Ferrell was already an established star and senior forward Pat Sass, a newcomer, fit in seamlessly.
With senior Mark Kauffman first off the bench and sophomores Vernon Hill and Eddie Oliver playing key roles, the team had the needed depth.
The Cardinals were a tight bunch off the court. They had a precise, up-tempo system in place and a coach who pushed all the right buttons. And they had a vital emotional component, having dedicated the season to former teammate Paul Kinney, who died of a sudden heart attack during a scrimmage the year before.
“Really what separated us was we just played together,” Wilson said. “We carried out the game plan, we played hard and we knew each others’ style of play. You could give somebody a wink and you knew what that meant rather saying ‘Hey, cut back door’ or whatever. We loved each other, we appreciated each other and I don’t think we had egos.”
Tubman remembers feeling honored that national publications — most notably Street & Smith — tagged the Cardinals as the country’s No. 1 ranked team in the preseason.
But, along with a daunting schedule that included tournaments in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, he said the team never felt added pressure.
“As far as the schedule, it was just a challenge that we were willing to meet head on,” he said.
Time and again, the Cardinals showed poise in critical minutes.
In their opening wins against two D.C. powers — Spingarn, featuring Georgetown standout Michael Graham, and Mackin Catholic, boasting Duke great Johnny Dawkins — they rallied from considerable halftime deficits. In the championship game of the Pepsi Challenge against No. 2 Camden (New Jersey) High, they clamped down in the final five minutes to turn a five-point deficit into a 67-62 win in Philadelphia.
The season’s closest call came against California-based St. Bernard’s at the Las Vegas Holiday Classic.
“Three seconds left, down one and it was a jump-ball situation and I called time out,” Amatucci recalls.
With Hill jumping, the play Amatucci designed had him getting the tip to Ferrell with Wilson immediately streaking to the basket.
Hill won the tip, but an opponent got a hand on it before it reached Ferrell, sending the ball higher in the air.
“Duane never grabbed it knowing there was only three seconds and Wilson had already taken off,” Amatucci said. “So he just smacked the ball ahead to him. He laid it in and we won the game.”
After the heroics, Wilson, now 56, got the nickname “Money” that remains.
“We all had our time and a share of the spotlight and made crucial plays,” he said. “We always knew that we would win no matter what the score was. It was a belief that you don’t think you’re going to lose and just know somebody was going to make a play to get us over the hump.”
In the midst of the grinding schedule was BCL play, and as the two-time defending league champions, the Cardinals got every rivals’ best effort. Mount Saint Joseph provided the final test in the championship game with Calvert Hall always a step ahead for an 85-81 win.
“We had some really good kids, but they were just so talented and played so well together,” former Mount Saint Joseph coach Pat Maggio said. “They knew exactly what they were going to do, when they were going to do it and with all that talent, it was just hard to stop everybody. They were a tremendous team.”
In the previous two years, all the buzz at Alhambra was the potential matchup between perennial champion DeMatha and upstart Calvert Hall, but the Cardinals never made it to the title game.
In 1982, their time arrived.
Fittingly, little came easy in the final game of the season. With a slim lead late in the third quarter, Ferrell left the game with an ankle injury and the powerful Stags gained momentum to take the lead.
But at the end, Wilson lived up to his nickname, taking over with 13 of his game-high 28 points coming in the fourth quarter to close out the team’s perfect season.
“There was a little relief in that we did what we came to accomplish,” Wilson said. “We were national champions and they couldn’t take that away from us — champs from Day 1 to the end of the season.”
Said Tubman: “Could you imagine if we would have gone 33-1? Could you imagine that? We weren’t going to let that game get away.”
Immediate thrill came at the final buzzer. But, soon after, another emotion hit the Cardinals head on.
“During the trophy ceremony, we were all sitting on the bench and it was like the air had been let out of us because we realized it was the end,” Tubman said. “No one had thought of these things earlier. I didn’t think it’s my senior season, my last game. I never thought about that until I was sitting on that bench during that trophy ceremony and that’s when it hit me that I’m never going to play with these guys again.
“You talk about bittersweet — that’s the epitome of bittersweet. We actually started crying and it wasn’t out of happiness for winning the tournament, it was about us not being together anymore.”
50th BCL TOURNAMENT
Monday, March 22 Quarterfinals
(all games at 6 p.m.)
8 Calvert Hall at 1 St. Frances
7 St. Maria Goretti at 2 Archbishop Spalding
6 John Carroll at 3 Mount St. Joseph
5 Loyola at 4 Mount Carmel
Wednesday, March 24 Semifinals
5/4 winner vs. 8/1 winner, 5:30 p.m.
6/3 winner vs. 7/2 winner, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 26 Championship
Semifinal winners, 6 p.m.