How elite men’s basketball changed the game for a Maryland school

One of the smallest Catholic schools in Maryland was struggling to keep its doors open.

At the Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland, enrollment had been declining sharply for several years. And despite the support of a tight-knit and passionate community, the future for the K-12 school looked bleak.

“The school was going to close. We were in the last year of school,” said Joseph Carter, president of Bishop Walsh.

Bishop Walsh needed a rescue plan. The one the officials got right was unexpected for a school that rarely distinguished itself in sports: He built an elite men’s basketball team.

Four years later, there is no talk of closing Bishop Walsh.

Enrollment has stabilized at about 330 students, Principal Jennifer Flinn said. The high school level in particular has seen an increase in enrollment, driven by basketball players transferring to the school, according to Flinn.

And the school has a basketball team to be proud of. He is the best in school history. And he aspires to be one of the best in the country.

Building an elite basketball program

The school’s campus is located at the end of Bishop Walsh Road on a hill overlooking downtown Cumberland, a thriving coal mining and transportation hub.

The glory days of the “Queen City” came in the first half of the 20th century. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, Cumberland’s population was nearly 40,000. Today, it has fewer than 20,000.

Bishop Walsh opened in 1966, when five small high schools in the area merged. Over many years, the school grew. A middle school was added in 1985, then an elementary school followed about twenty years ago. However, in recent years, enrollment had declined and concerns about the future had become urgent.

While some Bishop Walsh officials said the decline had not reached a crisis, Carter recalled a pressing concern: “We had to do something to get students into the building.”

So the school brought in Dan Prete, a well-known high school coach. Prete had experienced great sports as the varsity associate head coach at Montrose Christian School in Rockville. During his time at Montrose Christian, from 2001 to 2013, Prete and other coaches sent 36 players to NCAA Division I schools, including NBA star Kevin Durant.

When Prete arrived at Bishop Walsh in 2018, few at the school could envision a basketball team that would play against future professional basketball stars and recruit players from around the world. But that was Prete’s vision.

Prete brought an international touch to recruiting. He has traveled internationally to coach basketball camps twice, to Morocco in 2013 and to Brazil in 2019, and maintains an international network of coaching contacts.

Vilius Slanina, Bishop Walsh’s guard, hails from Lithuania and ended up at the school through one of Prete’s connections.

“I moved to the United States in August [2021]two weeks before the start of classes,” said Slanina.

The 2021-22 roster featured several other international players, including Israel’s Maor Nekrashevich and the UK’s Myles Hosten. International students live in a dormitory with the rest of their teammates and various other Bishop Walsh students.

International players were drawn to Bishop Walsh because of Prete, but also because of where Prete took Bishop Walsh to: to the National Intercollegiate Basketball Conference.

Competing against the best of the best

Led by Prete, the Spartans joined the NIBC, a new school super conference.

Before joining the NIBC, the Spartans men’s basketball team was good and sometimes very good in a schedule filled with local competition. The players grew up in the area. Few played college basketball in NCAA Division I schools. The team was rarely recognized beyond its hometown.

In their new conference, the Spartans play in arguably the most competitive private high school league in the country. Their opponents include powerhouses like IMG Academy and Montverde Academy in Florida and Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. All NIBC games are shown on the ESPN networks.

The NIBC was formed in May 2021, a collaboration of ESPN and Paragon Marketing Group, whose president, Rashid Ghazi, is a pioneer in putting high school games on TV.

Some of the first teams to join the NIBC were Montverde, Oak Hill, La Lumiere School, and Sunrise Christian Academy, all teams with stories of success on the court. Montverde has fielded top draft picks including NBA stars Ben Simmons, RJ Barrett, D’Angelo Russell and Cade Cunningham.

That pool of court talent has continued since the launch of the NIBC. In 2021, there were nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the eight teams that joined the conference.

“You’re seeing the best of the best night after night,” said Lafayette Dublin, Bishop Walsh’s assistant basketball coach. “There are no nights off.”

The move to the NIBC brought more attention to Bishop Walsh’s basketball program and to the school. For the first time, students in Cumberland and across the country were watching their team on their smartphones and televisions.

Of NIBC’s 38 games in the inaugural 2021-22 season, seven were nationally televised on ESPNU, while the remaining 31 aired on ESPN+. Eight of Bishop Walsh’s games were broadcast on ESPN+, while the Spartans’ game against Sunrise Christian was broadcast on ESPNU.

In the first season of NIBC, the level of competition clearly challenged Bishop Walsh. The Spartans went 1-9 against NIBC teams. Their only win came against Wasatch Academy.

Still, the slow start was not unexpected for NIBC officials.

“We … recognize that not every team is going to be Montverde, IMG or Sunrise,” Ghazi said. “There will be teams that are in the middle, teams at the bottom, and teams at the top, and sometimes those teams in the middle or bottom can have a great year.

“I think Bishop Walsh is in a great position to continue in the league for a long time. We just have to see how he fares over the next two or three years,” he said.

leaving his mark

The season ended on a high note in the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, a local basketball tournament that began in 1961. In more than 50 years of playing in ACIT, Bishop Walsh had never won more than one game out of three played by each team. in the tournament in a single year.

The Spartans rewrote history.

While they lost their first game to national powerhouse DeMatha, they beat Bishop McNamara at the buzzer in the first round of the consolation bracket. Cumberland native Mikey Allen hit a 3-pointer as time expired to seal the win.

In the consolation bracket championship, Bishop Walsh won again at the buzzer, again on a three-pointer from Allen.

With the triumphant end to the season, Bishop Walsh, as a school and basketball program, showed how far it has come in just a few short years.

“I just know how hard these kids have worked,” Carter said. “I only want [the] Bishop Walsh program to be the best. We are on our way.”

Josh Casazza is a reporter for Capital News Service, a student-driven nonprofit news organization run by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Jack Bloomfield, Amelia Jarecke, and Reese Levin contributed to this report.

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