For 25 years the St. Joseph Invitational has been the region's premier basketball tournament as well as the most entertaining sporting event in the state.
Article by Tim Stephens
The game program refers to the event as a "basketball tournament." Anyone who has attended the St. Joseph's Central Catholic High School Basketball Invitational knows it is much more than that. Cheerleaders doing the Can-Can, basketball players dressed as cowboys and a coach being pulled around the Veterans Memorial Field House court in a rickshaw are just some of the sights patrons of the SJI have been treated to since the tournament began in 1978.
"The Saint Joseph Invitational is much more than a sporting event," Sister Lillian Jordan, former tournament director, said in 1993. Indeed. On the court, the SJI has grown to challenge the prestigious Ashland Invitational Tournament as the premier basketball event in the Tri-State Area. For overall entertainment value, however, the SJI has no rivals.
The skits performed by the participating team's players, coaches, cheerleaders and majorettes, make the SJI unique and memorable. Spirit and cheerleading awards are as coveted as the basketball championship trophy.
At no other event does a player swap his gladiator digs for a basketball uniform and return to the court within a matter of minutes.
"The kids really got into the skits, sometimes more than the game," said Ed Fry, former St. Joe basketball coach. "Sometimes we had to remind them that there was a game, but that's all part of it."
While the players received most of the attention, former tournament director Mark Lycan credited those who never touched the basketball with making the SJI so unique.
"It's the efforts of cheerleaders and bands in developing the theme presentations that makes the SJI a truly unique athletic experience," Lycan said.
The coaches never know what to expect from the students who design skits to delight the crowds. Fry dressed in a toga was a memorable site, as was former Irish coach Bill Carroll's appearance in a top hat with coat and tails. Legendary Ceredo-Kenova coach Carl Ward drew some of the tournament's all-time loudest cheers when he was pulled by his players onto the court in a rickshaw.
"We had a lot of fun," Ward said. "I know the kids enjoyed it."
Jim Treacy, now a sports reporter with WSAZ, was one of those kids. A standout at St. Joe, Treacy said one of his favorite memories was of his principal, C'Ann Hill, participating in a Hello Dolly skit while dressed as a southern belle.
"That was the best I've ever seen," said Treacy, whose father and grandfather played for St. Joe. "It's the one moment about the SJI I remember more than any other."
C-K had a lot of fun during games, too. The Wonders joined Huntington East as one of the most dominant teams in tournament history. East won six titles in seven years from 1981 through 1987. C-K won six titles between 1979 and 1996, and reached the finals three other times.
St. Joe wasn't so fortunate, winning the title just once. Oh, but what a victory it was. On Feb. 3, 1996, St. Joe defeated C-K in the SJI championship game, building a huge lead, then holding off the hard-charging Wonders. The victory sparked a raucous celebration by St. Joe backers and by the Irish themselves. The headline in the Feb. 4 Herald-Dispatch practically shouted, "Irish guys are smiling." No one smiled broader than Chad Braley, the tournament's most valuable player and one of three St. Joe players on the All-Tournament team, joining Matt Woelfel and Jeff Thomas. Earlier in the tournament, Braley hit a shot at the buzzer to beat Huntington East.
C-K avenged the loss a year later, but that didn't tarnish St. Joe's title, a championship Irish fans cherish as much as their five West Virginia Catholic Schools Tournament titles. In fact, the SJI was born from the old West Virginia State Catholic Basketball Tournament, which had a successful run for 41 years.
Created in 1936, the State Catholic Basketball Tournament was intended not only to crown a basketball champion of Catholic schools, but also to provide a setting for the promotion of a closer relationship between the schools. Although the first tournament was held in Morgantown, the city of Huntington soon came to be the permanent host of the annual event.
During the 1950s, two men emerged as the symbol of this event – Frank Lombardo and Maurice Powers. Under their guidance the competition continued to grow until it came to represent the best-managed and most enjoyable tournament in West Virginia.
In 1977, it was announced that the West Virginia State Catholic Association would be dissolved and the majority of its membership would compete for the state public school championship. It appeared as though an era had finally ended. However, through the imagination and determination of St. Joseph High School Principal, Rev. Robert Wanstreet, and St. Joseph School Board President, Judge Robert Conaty, an idea for a new tournament evolved. At a meeting in Parkersburg, representatives of the seven Catholic high schools and Ceredo-Kenova High School met and agreed to participate in the first annual SJI. Bill Carroll and Carl Ward, head basketball coaches at St. Joseph and Ceredo-Kenova, also attended the meeting and helped create the new SJI format.
The years from 1940-1965 were considered the Goheen dynasty at the State Catholic Basketball Tournament. In that era, Goheen boys saw action in 22 tournaments. The 10 Goheens played in 42 games including 10 championship games, winning three titles. In that time, they scored 336 points. David, Tom and Larry were named to the All-Tournament team, Larry twice.
Players who made the All-Tournament team in the State Catholic Basketball Tournament three years were Paul Romana, Clarksburg; Dick Miller, Wheeling; and Roy Thompson, Charleston.
Players who made All State Catholic three years were Miller of Wheeling; Bob Cullen of Parkersburg; Tim DiPiero of Huntington; and Thompson of Charleston.
Mickey McDade, coach at Charleston, appeared in 19 tournaments, won two titles and was runner-up four times. Jim Lamb of Huntington coached 18 tournaments, won four crowns and finished second six times. His 27 victories are more than any other coach.
The format has changed through the years. Once dominated by small, Catholic schools, the SJI now features large-school and small-school divisions. The large-school bracket features teams such as Cabell Midland and Lexington Lafayette, while St. Joe competes in the small-school bracket with the likes of Chesapeake and Fairland.
Treacy said the worst thing that could happen to a team was losing in the first round. St. Joe always played the 7 p.m. opener. If the Irish lost, they played at 1 p.m. the next day in front of a much smaller crowd. If St. Joe lost that game, it played at 11 a.m. the third day, essentially in front of just a few students.
"We did that one year," St. Joe coach Bill Carroll said. "I told our team at Monday's practice that it was a good thing it was just a three-day tournament or we'd have been playing at six in the morning."
That the SJI consistently features Chesapeake, the area's winningest program the last 20 years, is a testament to its popularity. Teams have come from as far away as Canada to participate.
"The SJI is a good tournament and we're happy to play in it," Chesapeake coach Norm Persin said. "It's good competition for us. It's good for our guys to play in that type of atmosphere."
The SJI has featured many tremendous games and individual performances. One of the most memorable came in 1986 when John Piepenbrink and Mitch Sowards scored 22 points apiece to lead Huntington East to a 66-56 victory over C-K. A year later, Sowards scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting in a title-game win over Morgantown St. Francis.
C-K's Kevin Wells put on the SJI's most impressive individual display in earning MVP honors in 1990. Wells led the Wonders to the tournament title by scoring 105 points in three games, including 43 against Harts and 41 against Ashland. If the SJI named an all-time team, Wells might be its MVP. His 45 points vs. Linsley in 1988 is a tournament record.
" Incredible tournament," said former C-K star Jeff Edwards, who went on to play football at Marshall. "We had a lot of fun with the skits and the games."
Wells, who played at the University of Charleston, was one of several players who went on to star in college. Sowards, MVP of the 1986 and 1987 SJI tournaments, played at Kent State. Poca's Tim Dagostine, who starred in the 1984 SJI, played at Marshall. C-K's Chuck Cantrell, who starred in the 1981 SJI, played at the University of Charleston. East' Scott Haga played in the 1980 SJI before going on to Marshall, as did C-K's Joda Burgess, who lit up the scoreboard in the late 1990s.
The SJI was a showcase for several other athletes who went on to star in other sports during their college careers. Piepenbrink played baseball at Marshall, while East's Curt Nethercutt and Billy Hynus played football for the Thundering Herd. Buffalo's John Yarian played college golf, Russell's T.J. Maynard starred in football at Kentucky, while teammate Steve Lochow was a football standout at Dayton. East's Tom Zban played football at Virginia Tech. Wayne's Jonathan Adkins played baseball at Oklahoma State and now pitches for the Chicago White Sox.
"There were some great players who came through the SJI," former Huntington East coach Jim Clayton said. "There is no other tournament like it."
Office Box 384 Huntington, WV 25708-0384