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St. Maria Goretti 40 Seasons

March 1, 2024

In last of 40 years in Baltimore Catholic League, St. Maria Goretti basketball hoping for one more special moment



March 1, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

HAGERSTOWN — After Saint Maria Goretti basketball joined the prestigious Baltimore Catholic League 40 years ago, the road games came with long drives home that gave legendary coach Cokey Robertson plenty of time to second guess.

After the first trek in December 1984, when the Gaels opened their inaugural league schedule at mighty Cardinal Gibbons, one question lingered when he headed back to Hagerstown.

Did I make the right decision bringing our team in this league?

“Cardinal Gibbons was the top team at that point and they bopped us. We lost by about 25 points and I wondered if I did the right thing. Did I need to drive all this way to get our butts beat like that?” said Robertson, who spent 34 years as Goretti coach before stepping down in 2008.

Looking back now, with the 91-year-old Roman Catholic school set to close in June and the basketball program’s final BCL Tournament set to begin Friday, Robertson confidently states: “Not only was it the right decision, but the best one I made in my professional career.”

The answer came swiftly.

Goretti avenged that opening loss with a 66-62 win over Gibbons in the tournament championship game.

And it proved lasting.


Under Robertson, who won 698 games in his time at Goretti, the Gaels claimed four tournament and three regular-season titles before capturing regular-season crowns under coach Matt Miller in the 2006-07 season and current coach Sidney McCray in 2018-19.

Making its mark


Hagerstown has always been recognized as a baseball town fueled by the pride that came with following its now-defunct minor league team, the Hagerstown Suns.

But the tightly knit community proved eager to make room for good high school basketball. Behind Robertson’s disciplined approach, the curiosity of the quality opponents coming to town and the team’s quaint home, the Gael Center, Goretti provided it.

And just when they joined the BCL, the Gaels had a lightning-rod, generational talent in guard Rodney Monroe who helped make sure of the support. Before his sensational career at North Carolina State and one year in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, most people close to the Goretti program, including Robertson, say Monroe put the Gaels on the map.

In his four-year career, the 1987 graduate and BCL Hall of Fame inductee scored a state-record 3,047 points as the main cog in the team’s first three tournament and two regular-season championships.

“I remember we didn’t fear any team. We knew that with the guys that we had and the coach that we played for was going to put us in the best position to win, so we just had to go out and execute,” Monroe said. “And once we started winning, more fans came to the games, our home games were sold out and that makes you play harder and makes you want to win even more because you’re not only playing for yourself and Goretti, but you’re also playing for the community.”

Logging miles, memories and sustained success

The Gaels took the same pride on the road and traveled plenty of miles on Route 70 and around the Baltimore Beltway. In the seven league road games this regular season, they logged 593 miles one way, including 106 to reach John Carroll in Bel Air.

“It was asking a lot for them to come seven times down that hill every year to play against the good competition. But they liked it, they thrived on it and they were competitive the whole time,” BCL commissioner Jack Degele said. “And it was neat for our teams going there because the entire town was so involved and it was a different environment. They were just a good school for us to have in the fold and they’re going to be missed.”

The four decades of BCL play provided plenty of memorable players, wins and moments.

In the early years, Lee Hicks joined Monroe to give Goretti a dominant one-two. In the 2000-01 season, Rodney Gibson and Matt Tanner led the Gaels past Carmelo Anthony-led Towson Catholic, 59-53, in the tournament championship. In Goretti’s more recent regular-season titles, Elijah Clarence (2016-17 season) and RJ Blakney (2018-19) took on leading roles.

“St. Maria Goretti was a great addition to the Baltimore Catholic League many years ago — a valued and respected member.  Rodney Monroe was one of the best players ever in our league and Cokey Robertson is a legend. They’ll be missed,” said Mount Saint Joseph’s 32-year coach Pat Clatchey, who surpassed 800 career wins this season.

Unsurprisingly, Monroe is responsible for the program’s greatest and most talked about shot when the Gaels claimed a thrilling 73-72 win over Baltimore City champion Lake Clifton in the 1987 Metro Classic before a sold-out crowd at the Civic Center, now called CFG Bank Arena.

With three seconds left, the Lakers were at the free-throw line for a one-and-one with a one-point lead before Monroe had the final word.

“They missed the front end and Rodney rebounded, took one dribble and would have been around [what now would be] the 3-point line at the other end of the court and let go of one,” Robertson said. “The rotation, the spin on it was as perfect as you could see, and it didn’t hit nothing but net going through at the other end.”

The program’s final act


On Feb. 11, Goretti fittingly played its final BCL home game against Loyola Blakefield. It was Robertson’s close relationship with the Dons’ former great coach, the late Jerry Savage, that was instrumental in the Hagerstown school joining the league.

Past players, coaches and supporters poured into their beloved gym. They shared hugs and stories and soaked in the day with the alumni players in attendance honored at halftime.

The host Gaels, limited to nine players after several underclassmen transferred, fell behind early and trailed going into the fourth quarter.

Behind senior leaders Caleb Embeya and Jarvis Wright, the home team rallied for a 75-67 win.

“It was great for us, finding a way in the fourth quarter to get stops and we pretty much won that game with all heart. And to do that in front of all the past generations of players was huge,” Wright said.

All season, McCray’s message has been to stay in the moment and the resilient Gaels provided another special one for the program that afternoon.

“It was very important, not just for our league standings, but just to send everybody out with a great league win,” McCray said. “I let the guys know that we were playing for more than just ourselves today. We’re trying to leave a legacy for Goretti and play for everybody in the 40 years that played before our nine guys got here. So it was more about leaving a good legacy than winning a basketball game.”

Hours before the game, Robertson asked a favor from those last players to wear Goretti blue.

“‘Would you win this game today, so we can cap off the celebration we’re having?’ And they certainly dug in and did it,” he said. “I was so proud of them for pulling that game out in the last quarter. It was like something special was sent down to them and all of us — it was a special feeling.”

Last Friday, the Gaels played their last game on Cokey’s Court at the Gael Center, taking on nonconference Springdale Prep in one last tuneup before the BCL Tournament.

Before introducing the game’s starters, public address announcer Anthony Cook greeted the fans with traditional words: “Welcome to the Gael Center.” In a softer tone, he added: “Last time, y’all.”

Jim Martin, a program fixture, took one final swig of his ginger ale with 2:40 left in the pregame warmups before sharing his rendition of the national anthem for the very last time at the Gael Center. He has been the team’s statistician since Robertson came aboard in 1974 and has been singing since 1980.

Revved up, the Gaels led 22-5 after one quarter and 36-19 before holding on for a 71-67 win.

Determined to close out strong


Goretti takes an 18-15 record and 7-7 league mark into the 53rd BCL Tournament at Goucher College, opening against Archbishop Spalding in the quarterfinal round at 8:15 p.m. Friday.

In a wide-open field — Mount Saint Joseph won its second straight regular-season title to earn the top seed — Goretti wants to maximize the program’s final season with plans to reach Sunday’s championship game.

It would make for a storybook ending.

“I try to reiterate with the guys that we’re playing for something that’s bigger than us and we have an opportunity. And I just repeat that again and again,” McCray said.

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