“As we’ve explained to our team since Thanksgiving, there’s a lot of kids that can’t even practice right now,” Bishop Walsh Coach Dan Prete said. “And we’re getting to play in an event like this, so we’re blessed and special and lucky.”
The facility, which opened in 2018 and includes a football field, a hockey rink and a pool, will be hosting top-tier high school hoops for the next two weeks, a mix of regional private schools such as Bishop Walsh of Cumberland, Md., and globe-trotting national powers such as Montverde from Florida. Washington Catholic Athletic Conference headliners DeMatha and Paul VI are two of the 12 nationally ranked programs on the schedule.
Outside of media members and a few administrators, there were no spectators to watch Montverde roll over the Spartans, 77-39. However, 29 of the event’s 37 games will be available to stream live on the St. James’s website. The other eight will be shown on ESPN platforms.
After providing virtual workout opportunities in the spring, the complex has taken advantage of the looser restrictions applied to nonscholastic athletics and given high school athletes a place to play. Among other opportunities, the facility has hosted seven-on-seven football leagues, AAU basketball tournaments and indoor soccer events.
“The sports customer . . . was telling us from the beginning that, ‘We know this global pandemic is terrible, we understand the risks around it, but we want to train and we want to compete, so help us find a way to do that,’ ” said Kendrick Ashton, co-founder of the St. James Group.
“So we had virtual trainings, we had training materials we prepared, and we tried to remain engaged [in the spring]. But what we understood from that engagement is that there was a very significant appetite from people that was being constrained and that once we were able to do stuff there was going to be a real explosion of opportunity for us.”
That explosion happened over the summer and fall as word spread about the St. James in area high school sports circles. At a time when debates raged about how safe or wise it was to play sports during a pandemic, the complex developed a strong reputation among area athletes.
“One of the reasons that they have been the destination recently is their approach to making sure that the events they do provide are safe,” said Monique Liddell, girls’ basketball coach at Maret. “If you have been a team that has been to a number of events, not every event is created equal. Not every event has really thought through all the safety protocols. And the St. James has figured that out.”
Before the Spartans and Eagles took the floor, empty seats were sprayed and wiped down by an employee wearing a shirt that read “St. James Clean Team.” Everyone in the gym, outside of the players on the court, wore masks.
“It feels a lot different with the testing, the masks, staying in your room and stuff,” said Montverde forward Caleb Houstan, the No. 8 player in the Class of 2021 in the 247Sports composite ranking. “But they’ve done a good job with the precautions. It makes you feel safe.”
After the game, Prete said his team was headed to a nearby hotel where the players would take their online classes Friday evening. They had to stay cautious and maintain a team bubble because they were headed back to the St. James for the second of their five games Saturday. Montverde would do the same, but it has six games remaining on its schedule.
“Part of you says to yourself, ‘These kids need to get out and play,’ but another part gets worried,” Prete said. “It can be overwhelming, but at the end of the day we feel lucky.”