But in the course of ten years, a phoenix-like transformation has taken place, illustrating the immense growth of a tournament that will once again become the center of activity for Muslim Student Associations and masajid groups across the region. This blossoming nationwide tournament jumped to the 14,596-seat stadium at the University of Maryland, the host of two NCAA tournaments, countless graduation ceremonies, and the stage for hundreds of coveted speakers.
Now, with the tenth tournament on March 29-31, hypes, hopes, and challenges are high as teams lose their Z’s to bring on their A-game by working on final team organization details and projects, ranging from short film to tafseer test. All competitions and workshops centered around the theme, “The Patience of Champions: Rising to a Better Self.” Teams from high schools from across the region – including from the far ends of Annapolis to Virginia - compete in a weekend of competitions, complemented by youth-friendly workshops and activities by regional leaders.
“I’m losing a lot of sleep. No pain, no game.” Al-Huda school student Zakiyyah Ishaq said.
In line with its affinity for change, the tournament will debut new competitions and – for the first time ever - a team cap of 25 members to encourage more competition and account for the organization’s limited venue space and financial sources.
“We had every opportunity to grow in number, but keeping the door open would have tripled costs. We were faced with two options: pass on that cost through higher registration fees or fundraise,” regional director Adam Kareem said.
The cap reigned in the number of attendees from 638 last year to 541 this year. Over 800 members – including volunteers, organizers, teams, and guests – attended last year.
Although DCMIST has no immediate plans to leave its long-time home base in the University of Maryland, College Park – a venue valuable for its negotiable costs and enclosed environment – organizers said expanding to a different venue may be necessary in the future.
Organizers looked into George Washington University in Washington and George Mason University in Virginia, but felt both venues were too dispersed for student chaperoning and maintaining control. The group plans to examine other revenue streams – including grants and community sponsorships – over the coming months.
The change would also level an uneven playing field where teams with more members had a better chance of winning than teams with fewer members, Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s head coach Sheima Gimie said. Larger teams held mini-competitions to select the 25 who would represent their schools this year, revving up competition.
“I think for coaches - this was beautiful. Less stress. However, when selecting the 25 this year we had late nights, long conversations, and huge email threads over it,” Gimie said.
Competitions changes across MIST’s regional tournaments in the United States and Canada will also encourage more competition and equip competitors with 21st century skills – including mobile app development and community-based solutions.
“These changes add a breath of fresh air to give competitors something new to look forward to,” Kareem said.
MIST consolidated children’s book into short fiction and web design and newsletter into social media – a web-friendly news and idea platform for MSAs. Quran recitation – broken into two levels based on amount memorized – swallowed the tajweed contest while Research in Action – a community-based research project to find solutions to local challenges – replaced community service and research methods.
“MIST organizers all want the best for the competitors and give everyone participating the best experience,” sophomore Soha Hassan of Atholton High School said. Like many, Hassan – an eight-time-competitor who started competing under special conditions for eighth-graders - initially found the changes, like almost all others, unsettling.
In some cases, assistant director Tara Mohammed said changes would force teams to avoid simply sticking competitors in competitions to gain points, like in Tajweed, in which competitors often participated to gain a few points. Other competitions – like newsletter and web design – were not as competitive as other competitions like 2D Art.
For first-time competitors like Aya Mostafa Karam, a sophomore at Centennial High School, the changes do not mean much. Like many newcomers, Karam looks forward to a tournament and community she has heard much about since she moved from California.
Long-time executive director Adam Kareem, now what some call the face of DC MIST, will also pass on the helm to University of Maryland graduate Tara Mohammed.
“I feel I’m more indebted to MIST than the other way around,” Kareem said. “I remind our organizers often – we do this for Allah (SWT). MIST isn’t just a fun activity that comes and goes. It’s more than just putting on an event. I honestly believe and hope that this can get me into Jannah.”
And who will take gold in this life, MIST’s overall team champions trophy? Competitors and organizers said that a year full of changes just might challenge Dar-us-Salaam’s eight-year domination over the competition.
The point difference between first, second, and third place slimmed in the last few years, with just 36 points separating Eleanor Roosevelt High School from Dar-us-Salaam last year, according to DCMIST records. 122 points separated third place – Western Tech from first place.
“It’s our tenth anniversary,” Mohammad said. “Anything could happen.”
Kareem said that while everything was in Allah’s hands, he would like the team that give it their all to win. “Of course, if a five to six member team can wow us all and take a position, that would be awesome.”
Competitors should expect a lot of “humbling surprises” at this year’s tournament to celebrate MIST’s ten-year anniversary, Mohammad and Kareem said, especially at its awards ceremony Sunday night.
“It’ll be classy. Just know that,” Kareem said.
MIST Nationals will be announced in a few months and will likely be held before Ramadan, organizers said. Because of hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, the location is uncertain.
But even as MIST continues to blossom, volunteers and organizers work 2-3 hours per night, and competitors, coaches, and parents organize teams from across the region, the simplicity, humbleness, and service-based intentions of the tournament with which it began in a small school basement remain.
For in almost every email, DCMIST signs off with a simple reminder that has become the center of this tournament: Keep your intentions sincere.