The most moneyed Goliath in prep school athletics needed help from above, or from somewhere else, to vanquish a relative David in parochial hoops over the weekend.
The box score says St. John’s College High School, the favorite charity of alumnus and Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, defeated Archbishop Carroll, a once transcendent squad turned proverbial Little Sisters of the Poor, 53-51. Since Friday night, all the talk in the WCAC, the D.C. Catholic league which for decades has been at or near the top of any ranking of America’s strongest schoolboy basketball confederations, has focused on how it ended.
“Highway robbery!” read the tweet sent out by Carroll’s athletic department after the buzzer.
Carroll, the underfunded and underdog home team, had turned a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead in the final minute of the game, with the go-ahead points coming on a layup with one second showing on the scoreboard. Joy turned to confusion and soon tears, however, as the crew chief called a technical foul on the host. The Carroll coaches say they were initially told the techs were called because of the behavior of fans, but then the referees’ crew chief changed his call and attributed the tech to bench players going out on the court after the layup.
The change from a tech on fans to one on players was momentous, Carroll coaches say, because a technical on the crowd would garner St. John’s only one shot, but a bench technical gets two shots. St. John’s had called a timeout as soon as the go-ahead shot went through the net, and what little video has surfaced of the fiasco appears to show that nobody ran on the court before the timeout was called. (The would-be winning layup occurs at 51 seconds of this video.)
Yet instead of having to go the length of the court down by one with almost no time left on the clock, St. John’s was given the chance to erase the one-point deficit at the free-throw line.
As it turned out, the tech calls were only the first act of the circus. “Everything just went haywire,” says Carroll’s first-year coach, Michael Powell.
St. John’s went on to miss the first technical. But the crew chief then waved off the miss, telling Carroll coaches that the hand-waving of a fan standing off the court behind the baseline constituted an illegal disruption. The player made his second chance at the first free throw.
Then he missed what was now officially the second technical free throw, but... the ref waved off that miss, too, telling Carroll coaches that another fan’s cell phone video light in the grandstands was another illegal disruption. So the St. John’s shooter had four shots on a single, and by all appearances bogus, technical foul.
Carroll then fouled on the ensuing inbounds attempt, and St. John’s made one of two shots there for the final 53-51 margin.
In all, St. John’s had six foul shots, with two do-overs, after losing the lead with one second left on the clock. Absent lane violations, Carroll coaches say, second-chance free throws are virtually unheard of.
Days after the finish, folks from Carroll were still stunned and steamed in equal parts, and wondering out loud if a certain shoe magnate’s footprints were all over the St. John’s win.
“Nobody’s ever seen those calls before,” says Carroll athletic director Rob Harris. “Watching that, I was thinking something’s up. I think anybody with common sense seeing that would think something’s up. I think Ray Charles would think something’s up.”
Carroll assistant coach Brian Bobo, while chuckling, hinted at what anybody with Lions leanings has been thinking since the St. John’s game: “Was the ref wearing Under Armour shoes?”
The ending was odd on its face. But the game’s backstory surely enhances the “something’s up”-ness of the whole affair.
St. John’s was founded in 1851, but in recent years whenever the school is mentioned talk turns to Plank, who makes sure its coffers have been overflowing with shoe dollars. Plank got attention in 2015 for a $16 million donation, called the biggest in the school’s history at the time, but an official at a WCAC rival says St. John’s insiders were saying that Plank had actually dumped $45 million on the campus, with his goal being to turn the place into an IMG-esque sports academy for the Mid-Atlantic region.
In any case, the school’s motto has gone from “Religio, Scientia” to “Two Brands. One Family.” Really.
St. John’s now regards itself as a national program, and not without reason: Athletes from across the country are traveling to D.C. just for their senior years to take advantage of Plank’s largesse. Among those migrants: Quarterback and recent Michigan commit Kevin Doyle, who came in from the Philadelphia area, and lineman Cameron Spence, who left the acclaimed IMG Academy in Florida for D.C., were both one-and-done football stars at St. John’s. As the dollars are flowing in, so come the wins: In the fall, St. John’s won their first WCAC football championship since 1989, Plank’s senior year there. The St. John’s basketball teams have also flourished, with both the boys and girls teams making regular appearances in national prep rankings in recent years, and each winning a coveted WCAC championship in the last two seasons.
Carroll athletes, meanwhile, have played the Have-Nots to the Haves of Plank Prep of late. But if you crank up the wayback machine enough, you can find a time when Carroll was the nationally regarded powerhouse that St. John’s now aspires to be. Carroll opened in 1951—exactly 100 years after St. John’s. But by the end of its first decade Carroll was renowned across the country for its basketball squad. With a team featuring stars such as future Boston Celtics center and Georgetown head coach John Thompson and future Notre Dame president Edward “Monk” Molloy, Carroll went on a 55-game winning streak from 1958-1960, and captured not only league titles but also national tournament championships. The Washington Post once called the Carroll Lions “America’s first dominant schoolboy team.”
The way Carroll won added gravitas to the streak: Carroll did it all while fielding the Catholic league’s first racially integrated athletic teams, in an era when segregation was the way of life in the Nation’s Capital.
But Carroll’s recent sports history is as dreadful as its old days were golden. The school hasn’t been competitive in the WCAC for decades.: Since 1961, the Lions have won just two league basketball titles, and none in the last 25 years. It’s been 30 years since the football team won the conference. Enrollment is less than half what it was during its sporting heyday. For years, Carroll’s rivals have wondered if the D.C. Archdiocese, which owns and operates Carroll, was keeping the school open only to prevent shuttering a minority-dominated institution. (One cool fallout from the lack of new money: The St. John’s/Carroll debacle took place in the same gym where the late ‘50s squads, one of the greatest schoolboy teams ever assembled, once toiled. According to Carroll old-timers, other than Hall of Fame plaques on the walls, the place remains essentially unrenovated from its glory days.)
Underfunding tends to lead to poor performances on the fields of play in the prep school realm. And so it has been with Carroll; the Lions had clearly turned to Lambs through the years. The boys basketball squad went 0-22 last season. And not because of mysterious tech calls in the final second. But two examples of the plight: Carroll had an 81-point loss to league “rival” Gonzaga College High School last year; the Lions also got shellacked twice in the regular season by St. John’s, by an aggregate of 91 points.
Glory days of old and the recent tough times were both on the minds of the Carroll folks when they saw the one-point lead over St. John’s disappear and the game handed over to the affluent crosstown squad by the referees. A win over St. John’s would have been a step toward living up to the rallying cry the nostalgic old-timers have taken to using: “Restore the Roar!”
“Sure, that game affects us as far as standings, and definitely the playoff seeding,” says Harris, Carroll’s AD. “But in the bigger picture, that took away what would have been our biggest win in 15 or 20 years! So this has greater implications that anybody can even think about, really, in terms of any kid choosing Carroll as a viable option for [basketball]. That would have been really big for Carroll.”
Joe Marosy, the administrator for Board 12 of the IAABO, which provides officials for WCAC games, ended a phone conversation with a reporter rather than discuss the accuracy of Carroll’s version of the refereeing in the St. John’s game. “Our conference doesn’t speak to sportswriters about anything!” Marosy exclaimed while hanging up.
St. John’s Coach Patrick Behan did not respond to a request for comment.
Harris and head coach Powell both say that Carroll intends to file a complaint about the officiating with the WCAC office.
Folks all over the WCAC, or at least those from schools battling St. John’s for supremacy of the most powerful prep hoops conference in the land, are hoping that the appeal works.
“This game impacts more than just Carroll,” said an official from another WCAC school, whose athletic department is also looking for answers on how the league’s own Friday Night Massacre manifested. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be happy about what sounds like a total lack of accountability on the part of [Board 12].”
Those hopes will likely be dashed, alas. As of deadline for this story, WCAC Commissioner Steve Colantuoni says that he had yet to receive the official complaint from Carroll. But no matter what argument they make, from what Colantuoni knows of what transpired in the closing moments of what the record books now show as a St. John’s win, it’s unlikely anything as far as Ws and Ls will be changed.
“It would be a rare case that the game would be replayed or points taken away and the outcome of the game reversed,” Colantuoni says.
Then again, who’s ever heard of a mulligan on a foul shot— let alone two?
Carroll assistant Bobo says that Friday night’s contest will leave a big, well, shoeprint in the history of WCAC basketball.
“Everybody at Carroll is going to remember this game,” says Bobo. “Everybody should remember this game.”