Baltimore loses its most popular girls basketball game as the IND-Mercy basketball rivalry ends after 54 years

by Katherine Dunn

When news spread last week that the Institute of Notre Dame would close in June after 173 years, students, staff and alumnae felt crushed at the loss of Maryland’s oldest all-girls Catholic high school.

History runs deep in the school that was once part of the Underground Railroad and has welcomed so many girls, including generations of the same families, through its doors. One of IND’s biggest traditions — and one that will be profoundly missed well beyond the East Baltimore campus — has been “The Game,” the rivalry basketball game with Mercy that, for 54 years, drew thousands of students, staff, parents and alumnae as well as fans who just loved The Game’s unique place in Baltimore girls sports.

“That was my very first thought — I can’t believe this is not going to happen anymore. It’s obviously devastating,” IND athletic director Fredrica Newman said.

IND won the last edition of “The Game,” at SECU Arena in January, but Mercy won the all-time series 30-24.

“It’s part of their history. To lose that, that’s something that you can’t ever get back,” said first-year IND basketball coach Sonya Howell. “It hit pretty hard to find out that we weren’t going to have that history anymore. It’s devastating for the kids, because most of them who play sports, especially basketball, that’s one of the big things that drew them to the school.”

Financial issues from declining enrollment, some benefactors no longer able to support the school and millions of dollars in repairs needed for their Aisquith Street building combined with the COVID-19 closure forced IND officials to make the difficult choice to close the school, according to an article from The Catholic Review, posted on the Archdiocese of Baltimore web site.

Junior Niyona Smith was still reeling from the news late last week. In addition to the realization that she would not graduate from IND, Smith couldn’t help but think about The Game, which ended with seven straight IND wins.

“I was looking forward to one more win. I was looking forward to my senior year and being able to showcase my talent, because AAU’s not going on right now. It’s so sad,” Smith said. “It’s such a big tradition. I was definitely hoping to go back to the game after I graduate and eventually have my own kids go to that school and be able to experience it. Alumnae play a huge role in IND traditions.”

IND senior guard Grace Taylor earned the final Most Valuable Player award in The Game history after leading the Penguins to a 36-29 win January 31. She too had hoped to come back to The Game, also knowns as The Big Game, for years to come with her best friends and teammates Smith and Sydney Paschall.

“It hurts my heart with not having this game again,” Taylor said. “With us gaining a win each year and our wins going up, we wanted to keep that streak alive and the game was just such a great atmosphere. One of the reasons why I loved playing in the game was the atmosphere from both sides, the parents and alums.”

The annual rivalry showdown, played at the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) and then at Loyola’s Reitz Arena, UMBC’s RAC Arena, the Towson Center and SECU Arena, usually drew between 3,000 and 5,000 fans — about 3,400 for the final game.

At its root, The Game was a basketball game. At its heart, it was so much more.

It grew into the centerpiece of a sort of all-class reunion for each school, sweeping alumnae back to their high school years. For one night, women of all ages transformed into cheerleading teenagers, jumping and screaming for every big play, churning in seas of IND blue on one side and Mercy red on the other.

“It was all about pride and you always want to see events that draw enthusiasm and excitement around pride in your school and especially in Baltimore where people say, ‘What school did you go to?’ and they mean your high school,” said Susan Thompson, who covered The Game many times for The Catholic Review before taking over as executive director of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland.

It never mattered what a team’s record was. Nothing about the rest of the season mattered. Winning The Game could make a team’s season as it did this year for IND which was 2-18 going into the game.

Former IND coach Deb Taylor, now the Reservoir girls coach, didn’t understand how much winning the rivalry game meant until her conversation with IND athletic director Linda King before she was hired for the 1994-95 season.

“I didn’t grow up in Maryland, so I didn’t know anything about the game,” Taylor said, “and they told me, ‘Coach, you can go 1-25 as long as the one is The Big Game.’ I said, ‘Well, how about we go 25-1 and we don’t win The Big Game? That sounds better to me,’ and I was basically told, ‘No. No. No.’ They were kidding, but they really weren’t.”

Taylor’s teams won both years she coached.

Although IND won the trophy for the final time, Mercy claims the all-time series win, 30-24. The Magic had the longest winning streak, 11 games between 1968 and 1978, but IND won the first and last games.

‘The last Friday in January is going to be really sad’

Connie (McDonogh) Staab won The Big Game twice in three years and played on IND’s 1984 Catholic League championship team. Her daughter Jen, a 2012 IND graduate and now the Penguins volleyball coach, also played in The Game.

“I really don’t have any words,” Connie Staab said, “because I feel like the future is just being changed dramatically right now… I’m a basketball lover and I love the competition. I think it’s one of those healthy environments where these girls can get on the court and be as competitive as possible and win the trophy and just fluff their tails for a year. It’s crushing… The last Friday in January is going to be really sad.”

For the students at both schools, The Game was circled on the calendar in September if not sooner.

Spirit Week preceded The Game, driving everything to a fever pitch by Friday night. The teams often practiced with music blaring and other distractions coaches designed to help them focus on the court.

“The cheering in there compared to anywhere else is unreal,” said Eilish Gately, a 2017 IND graduate and four-time veteran of The Game. “When you make a foul shot, it’s like, ‘Wow, everyone’s cheering for me. Like four or five thousand people are watching me play the sport I love with my sisters.’ I probably will never have a chance to experience that again and I feel so sorry that no one else ever gets to experience that.”

Jerry Hahn coached IND from 1982-93 when the Penguins, known then as the Indians, went to four Catholic League finals, and from 2009-13 when his daughter Jen played. He had many tight battles with long-time Mercy coach Mary Ella Marion.

“Losing this, it’s going to be a heck of a void,” Hahn said. “I feel bad for the students at IND, but look at the students at Mercy. They looked forward to it every year as well. It was such a rivalry. Mary Ella and I wanted to win. It was hard-fought, but it was friendly. It was like family. They’re your sister school over there. Now they’re not going to have this big game or this opportunity anymore either.”

Marion couldn’t even talk about basketball, feeling it paled by comparison to the closing of the school, one she had a connection with since her years playing for Mercy in The Game.

For Mercy, ‘No one will ever hold that place IND held’

Mercy graduate Ada Clare Tempert, the MVP of The Game in 2018, also felt the loss beyond basketball. Her sister Kiley Tempert graduated from IND.

“My heart hurts for the IND community,” Tempert said. “Even though we’re rivals, it was our community, our Catholic community. Yeah, there can only be one winner, but at the end of the day, we’re still one. It’s kind of like we’re losing half of our community. Now who’s our rival? No one will ever hold that place that IND held for a Mercy student, a Mercy alum or a middle school student going into Mercy.”

Few Baltimore high school sports traditions compared to the pageantry of the IND-Mercy basketball game.

Mercy 2009 graduate Maggie Marion, who played in four Big Games for her mother, said, “It’s not even just the rivalry but the community feel that the game had and what it meant to so many people. It brought two huge communities that were really passionate together at least for one night… It was really cool to see how many people cared about what was going on in that arena on a Friday night.”

The loss of The Game reverberates not just through the two schools, but through all of Baltimore high school girls basketball. No other local high school girls sporting event compares. Only the Calvert Hall-Loyola Turkey Bowl and the City-Poly football game drew more fans.

“It definitely leaves a hole in the Baltimore lore and tradition and especially for girls athletics,” said Newman.

”Many of our student body chose to come to IND because of going to The Big Game when they were younger. One of my freshman students in her email she wrote to me said, ‘IND was the only school I wanted to go to and I’ve dreamed of playing in The Big Game since I was in third grade,’ and she can’t believe it’s not going to happen.”

Al Schell founded his 695Hoops web site 10 years ago and has seen most of Baltimore’s biggest girls games since then, but he initially turned down passes to The Game. As a CYO coach not originally from Baltimore, he couldn’t understand what made it a big deal and why he should take his team until some of the parents filled him in.

“The basketball wasn’t always great, but The Game was great,” Schell said. “Even if one team was winning by 15 or 20, it didn’t feel like it because they would just be going crazy for every single basket, every single loose ball. It’s pandemonium in there… If you don’t go to IND or Mercy, you don’t get this. When you have a tradition of that magnitude that goes away that brought casual people in, people not on the IND or Mercy side who came to watch it and be around that environment, it’s a big blow.”

A loss felt beyond the IND-Mercy rivalry

Ada Clare Tempert, who plays soccer at Loyola University, understands what a rare opportunity The Game was for local high school girls.

“Female athletes have a hard time getting exposure,” she said. “The guys always get all the attention and people never really look at how hard women have worked within athletics within our education system. Both schools have worked so hard to get the attention for that game and now it’s being taken away… People, especially on the men’s side, don’t even really recognize what is being lost in the Baltimore community.”

IND is the fourth Baltimore Catholic school that has had championship girls basketball teams during its history to close in the past 22 years following Seton (merged with Archbishop Keough in 1988), Towson Catholic (2009) and Seton Keough (2017). Seton and Seton Keough were also all-girls schools.

All played in the Catholic League before it merged with the Association of Independent Schools to form the IAAM in 1999. The Penguins won the IAAM A Conference volleyball championship in 2004 and, through the years, B or C Conference championships in cross country, field hockey, basketball, swimming, badminton and golf.

Newman said the goal at IND wasn’t as much to win championships as to give every girl the chance to play. In 2019-20, they had 19 teams between varsity and JV.

“Certainly to lose another single gender school is heartbreaking,” said Thompson. “We’ll do everything we can to support IND and the athletes going forward.”

Many IAAM schools posted messages of support for IND that included a blue heart on social media last week.

“What we have in the IAAM is really special with all of our schools, so we’re certainly hurting as a league and from my basketball coach perspective, we’re certainly losing a valuable opponent,” said Roland Park coach Dani Steinbach, who also played basketball for the Reds against IND.

“The landscape of girls basketball has changed and unfortunately is continuing to change with these big decisions for these programs. I think the resilience of Baltimore girls basketball will remain strong, but it’s certainly a hit to just lose a competitor all together.”

Robin Johnson, who played for Taylor at IND in the mid-90’s, hopes they can hold on to some aspect of The Game to help alumnae keep in touch. An alumnae game, perhaps even one with Mercy, is among the ideas being floated.

“It always felt like a homecoming and I think a lot of us feel that way and that’s why it was so special,” Johnson said. “A lot of us are wondering what’s next and how we’re going to keep doing that. I know IND and the sisterhood that it is will find a way and come up with alternative things, but it definitely won’t be the same.”