CUMBERLAND, Md. — It’s a Friday night in a small Maryland city situated in the Appalachian Mountains, and two Rochester area residents are the main attraction.
Cumberland has just over 20,000 residents, but despite receiving a half foot of snow this day, basketball fans from all over the region have packed a small high school gym to watch the No. 1 high school team in the Super 25, La Lumiere (LaPorte, Ind.).
Isaiah Stewart and Gerald Drumgoole Jr., former Section V standouts, star for that team, which has traveled to Cumberland for the Bob Kirk Invitational along with several other teams. College scouts from Illinois, Oregon and Creighton are quietly observing them and the rest of La Lumiere as they warm up.
The parking lot is overflowing with cars. An entire section of VIP seating in one corner bustles with media and play-by-play announcers.
The scene was similar on Thursday as a fan walked into the stands wearing a bright purple University of Washington hat, clearly in support of Stewart who committed to the Huskies in January. Later, while Stewart is nursing a rolled ankle, a child builds up the courage to approach him and ask for an autograph.
This type of atmosphere is the new normal for Stewart and Drumgoole. They could have stayed in their hometown and enjoyed the success and friendships they had built. Instead, still young teenagers, they left that behind to pursue their dreams of playing basketball at the next level.
“It’s a good experience,” Drumgoole said later. “We have packed-out gyms just about every day. A lot of coaches come to see us.”
On a bigger stage, he’s already learning what it means to have a bigger audience. “Playing in a packed gym is a good experience that not everybody can have,” he said. “When you have that experience, you’re very blessed and you have to play hard each and every time.”
Outgrowing their situation
Stewart is in a rarefied echelon of recruits across the country. A Chosen 25 prospect, the former McQuaid big man won a gold medal with U17 USA Basketball team last summer and was named to the McDonald’s All-American Game.
Before he could reach these heights, he knew he would need to look beyond Rochester. He was a man among boys during his days at Section V — so much so, he didn’t even have to bother with learning a key skill.
“I never shot a jump shot at McQuaid,” Stewart recalled. “Coming here, I really shot my first jump shot I can remember in a game. They’ve built that confidence, and I kept continuing to progress and get better.”
Stewart arrived in 2017, one year prior to Drumgoole and was influential in getting his friend to Indiana. Drumgoole was a multisport standout at Irondequoit with Division I offers in football and basketball.
He was the 2017-18 All-Greater Rochester Basketball Player of the Year and a first-team AGR selection in football. In choosing his sport, he went with his heart and chose basketball, which led him to joining Stewart with the Lakers in Indiana.
That decision has paid off. Drumgoole is now considered close to a top-100 prospect nationally. On Feb. 11, he committed to Pittsburgh following an official visit.
Still, living far from home while still a high school student isn’t something done lightly or easily.
“It was a very hard decision, leaving all your friends to go somewhere and restart,” Drumgoole said. “This was a place I had never been to. But it was just a great opportunity and one I just had to take.”
On that snowy Friday in Maryland, La Lumiere’s opponent is the No. 12 team in the nation, Wasatch Academy from Utah. Matched against 6-foot-10 Mady Sissoko, a top-50 2020 recruit, Stewart is in his element.
As the two massive athletes battle in the paint for every rebound, every loose ball, Stewart at one point trots down the court with a smile on his face. A few plays later, he catches a perfect alley-oop from point guard Wendell Green, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Moments like these are part of the reason Stewart chose to leave home.
“The platform, the stage and playing against the top players in the country — playing against good players every day in practice and getting pushed. That was my biggest thing,” Stewart explained. “That was my main reason for leaving, and I just felt like I had outgrown my situation in Rochester. At McQuaid I was bigger than everybody else. It wasn’t much competition. Practice here is hard every day.”
Wasatch provided La Lumiere with plenty of competition, overcoming a double-digit deficit to take a lead late in the second half. That’s when Drumgoole made his mark. While Stewart controlled the paint early, it was Drumgoole who made the plays late.
The 6-foot-5 wing made a tough drive to stop a Wasatch run and hit the game-winning free throws as the Lakers added another victory over a top-25 opponent to their resume.
La Lumiere ended the tournament with a resounding 74-52 win over No. 9 Sunrise Christian from Kansas. The list of top-ranked opponents they’ve downed is even more extensive than the list of places where they’ve played this year.