Romanian Empire: Moldoveanu and countryman Petcu have beefened the Cadets’ roster.
Romanian Empire: Moldoveanu and countryman Petcu have beefened the Cadets’ roster. Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, which used to be called the Catholic League, has long been the strongest conference in the area and has produced generations of NBA players. This year, it might even be the best confederation in the entire country. As of last weekend, WCAC teams took up seven of the top 15 positions in the Washington Post’s rankings, including top honors. St. John’s held the No. 1 slot.

A key to St. John’s success has been the play of big man Vlad Moldoveanu. This is the 6-foot-10 senior’s first year at St. John’s. He’s already famous, just not around here. Moldoveanu led the national under-18 team in his native Romania to the European championship in August, and he was named MVP of the tournament. His mother, Carmen Tocala, was a longtime player for the Romanian women’s team and is now head of the Romanian Basketball Association.

St. John’s coach Paul DeStefano found Moldoveanu on a trip to Europe over the summer. It wasn’t a vacation.

“I was there for basketball,” he tells me on a recent afternoon, moments after his team routed conference rival Bishop Ireton, a squad led by Morakinyu “Mike” Williams, a 7-foot émigré of the United Kingdom. “Things are a little different than they used to be.”

The days when a high-school coach’s recruiting trips were limited to roaming the hallways and bullying the tall boys into coming out for the team are long-gone. Hollywood’s version of an extreme case was pictured in the 1986 classic Hoosiers: When set-shot genius Jimmy Chitwood wouldn’t suit up, Coach Dale drove across town to convince him to change his mind.

But it ain’t like that any more. Scouting on the local high-school scene these days is more advanced than it was on the pro level just a few years ago. In today’s prep game, coaches from afar would travel to Jimmy Chitwood’s house to pry him from Coach Dale’s grip, no matter how far out in the country he lived.

Or how far out of the country, even.

Practically nowhere is the shrinking world more evident than in the WCAC this year. Along with being unrivaled in its strength, the WCAC might also be the most ethnically diverse conference in the country. This season, only two schools—traditional league front-runners DeMatha and Gonzaga—don’t have foreign recruits suiting up.

DeStefano has been coaching teams in the D.C. area for three decades. Recruiting was already part of the game back in the ’70s, when he coached at Mackin, the one-time Catholic League powerhouse later merged into Archbishop Carroll. But back then, Mackin’s staff didn’t have to look outside the area code to find future Duke superstar and current Duke top assistant Johnny Dawkins. Catholic League coaches wouldn’t have thought of looking too far outside the Beltway for talent, let alone jetting to another hemisphere.

DeStefano hasn’t forgotten that the D.C. area is a hoops hotbed. His star point guard, Georgetown signee Chris Wright, is homegrown. And long after the final buzzer sounded in his team’s win over Ireton, DeStefano was still in the gym meeting with parents of area prospects and promising a youngster that he’d stick around for a few hours to see the kid’s youth team play on the St. John’s court.

But these days, the world is his oyster. Moldoveanu wasn’t the only souvenir DeStefano brought back from his overseas trip. He also landed 6-foot-7 Mihai Petcu, another forward on the Romanian championship squad.

St. John’s also has a Ukrainian kid, junior Damjan Zelenbaba, cooling his heels on JV even though he’s got all the skills for varsity. Coaches say they’re just waiting for his cultural sensibilities to catch up with his court sense.

“It’s just the cultural and language barrier that are holding him back, really,” says St. John’s JV coach Justin Molloy. “But he’s ready.”

St. John’s coaches aren’t globetrotting alone.

Danny Sancomb, in his third year as coach of St. Mary’s Ryken, spent a chunk of his summer in Eastern Europe, too, looking for big, fundamentally sound bodies. Sancomb went to Serbia to check out a basketball camp. He left with commitments from two 6-foot-5 campers—Janko Kajtez and Andrija Zivkovic—to come to the Leonardtown, Md., school for their senior years.

“I’ve got a friend over there who worked with the kids and their parents,” says Sancomb. “He tells them what they’re going to do, come to America, get an American degree. It’s a long way to be away from home, so it’s hard on the kids, and it is different. They’ve done so well academically, and their work ethic is really rubbing off on the guys. But [bringing in foreign players] has been great for the school and for the kids.”

Though the size of the WCAC’s current crop of foreign players is unprecedented, their presence has been an issue before. In the late ’90s, there was talk of cracking down on immigrant players when star pivot man Ruben Boumtje Boumtje came to Archbishop Carroll from his native Cameroon and played one year.

St. John’s, by that time, had already established a pipeline for Australian talent, and two other Cameroonians also came to WCAC schools the same year Boumtje Boumtje dressed out for Carroll. But most of the attention was focused on Boumtje Boumtje, with Carroll’s rivals saying the player had been planted at the school by then–Georgetown coach John Thompson, a Carroll alum who was recruiting him to play college ball with the Hoyas.

Ultimately, however, nothing was done to curtail the immigrant influx.

The recent explosion in foreign transfers in the WCAC, strangely enough, was triggered at least in part by rules that the league put in place in 2003 to curb the recruiting of homegrown players by its member schools. Under those edicts, students, after their freshman year, must sit out one school year of athletics if transferring between league schools or to a WCAC school from any public or private school located in a city or county that has a WCAC school in it.

“A year is a long time, especially for an upperclassman,” says Sancomb, “and no player is going to want to sit out that long, so this has stopped [local] transfers.”

There is no corresponding rule for foreigners, however. So a 17-year-old from Alexandria, Egypt, is fair game; a kid from Alexandria, Va., home of Bishop Ireton, is not. For any WCAC coach who wants to keep his talent pool deep, the off-season is now hunting season on tall Europeans and Africans.

The one-way foreign-exchange program does seem to be mutually beneficial to kid and school. Moldoveanu has committed to play for George Mason University. Ireton’s Williams is headed to another UK: Tubby Smith’s University of Kentucky Wildcats.

Two Serbians who played for Sancomb last year earned free rides from a pair of Division II NCAA hoops programs: the University of Alabama’s Huntsville campus and West Virginia’s Davis & Elkins College.

And the foreign influence has turned Sancomb’s basketball program from a charity case into something divine. Before he arrived at the school, St. Mary’s Ryken had never beaten a conference opponent since joining the league in 2003. The low point came that year, when the team got whupped by conference rival Bishop O’Connell by about 100 points.

But in their first matchup this year, Sancomb’s team took out Joe Wootten’s O’Connell squad, 61–59. Kajtez scored a game-high 20 points and outplayed O’Connell’s big man, 6-foot-10 Frank Ben-Eze, who came to the Arlington school from Nigeria.

Says Sancomb, “We can play with anybody now.”