- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - They played the Section Three Class D final at Le Moyne College last night.

The game involved the high school basketball teams from Hamilton and Rome Catholic.

The Hamilton Emerald Knights vs. the Rome Catholic Red Wings.

At stake: a trip to the state quarterfinals.

This could have been anywhere in America. Some scenes are forever, almost Rockwellian: the spirited cheerleaders appealing to the freshly scrubbed faces in the stands, the players' parents on edge, their stomachs in knots, and the respective communities emotionally invested in the hopes and dreams of the young, sweaty bodies on the floor.

They were all here, all the cast from countless Hollywood flicks,except the Dennis Hopper-like town drunk who interrupts the game to complain about a referee's call.

Class D is the bottom athletic rung in the state, established for schools with enrollments of less than 212 students.

Small does not necessarily reflect an absence of basketball competence. Rome Catholic, a private school, lives with the charge that it recruits players. The charge is hardly indigenous to these parts, as countless high school coaches in the Washington area can attest.

"How can we recruit when we have only 128 kids at the school?" Rome Catholic coach Jim Kenny said before the game.

If Kenny recruited, he apparently would have 133 kids at the school, five of whom would be 6-foot-10 power forwards.

"This program is stepped in tradition," Kenny said. "I don't need to sell it to the kids."

Prep basketball is where it ends for most players, in games and gyms like this one. They either are too short or too slow or not skilled enough to compete beyond the high school level.

The mother of one of the small-town players here tells her son: Yes, you're the star of your high school team, but there is always someone better out there.

Adonal Foyle is the exception. He is the long shot who came in from the cold of upstate New York. Foyle led Hamilton to the Class D state title in 1994 and then played three years for the late Jack Bruen at Colgate before going to the NBA with the Warriors.

The Foyle-led team was the best in coach Tom Blackford's 18 seasons at Hamilton.

"It's not like we have Syracuse knocking down our doors for our players," he said.

The town of Hamilton (pop: 3,790) is devoted to the school teams. Mark Murphy, an ex-safety with the Redskins, is an avid supporter. His daughter, Katie, is an accomplished player on the girls' team, recently surpassing the 1,000-point career mark.

Luke Graham, Hamilton's star player, is not unlike a number of athletes at small high schools. He spreads his athletic gifts to two sports, football and basketball, and is all-state in both. He is different in one respect. He does not date the captain of the cheerleading squad. He dates Katie Murphy.

So who has the better game, Graham or Murphy?

"I do," Graham said. "I can post her up. She can shoot and drive, but my size hurts her."

Graham, a 6-2 guard, elicited a buzz from the throng after he finished a fastbreak with a dunk in the first quarter.

Hamilton found the Rome Catholic point guard especially cooperative around multiple defenses and traps. The point guard would throw the ball one way, and the Hamilton players would take the ball the other way.

A careless basketball team is a team without a future, regardless of the level. Class A or Class D. The NBA or the CBA.

And so it was in the Henninger Athletic Center, where Hamilton defeated Rome Catholic 58-43.

There was no massive celebration afterward, no overdone displays of emotion, no finger-pointing, chest-bumping and dancing by the victors.

Perhaps that is because the Hamilton Emerald Knights have a lot of practice at this postseason stuff. It marks their eighth appearance in the state tournament in the last nine seasons.

"It never gets old going to the state tournament," Blackford said. "It's just as exciting as the first time."

Rest up, you Emerald Knights.

Their next big game is Saturday.

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