Erica McCauley and Kris Bryant have hit the road to play basketball against excellent competition before, but they've never traveled this far to find a good game.
On Thursday, McCauley, Bryant and 11 other players from Maryland's 16-and-under team will fly nearly 2,000 miles to Clovis, N.M., to play in the Amateur Athletic Union's national Junior Olympics tournament.
McCauley and Bryant, stars of Mount Hebron's girls basketball team last year, are recent additions to the Maryland Hoopers. The Hoopers won the state AAU tournament last month and will be one of 44 teams to converge on Clovis, a small town in eastern New Mexico. Clovis is about 100 miles from the nearest cities of Lubbock and Amarillo, both across the Texas border.
"I hear it [Clovis] is not at the end of the earth, but you can see it from there," said Jim McCauley, Erica's father who is an assistant coach for the Hoopers.
Hoopers head coach Ed Santana, a 42-year-old U.S. Army major, added McCauley and Bryant to his team after the Harford Hoopers beat the Anne Arundel Waves -- McCauley and Bryant's former team -- for the state championship last month. Coaches are allowed to add up to three players to their squad for national competition.
McCauley and Bryant, each heading into her senior year at Hebron, are the Hoopers' only Howard County players. The team, which has been practicing together for three weeks, is still about $1,500 short of the $10,000 it needs to finance the trip.
"If I have to use my credit card [to made up the $1,500 difference], I'll do it," Santana said. "This is one of the best teams I've ever coached, and I've coached basketball for 15 years. We've got a chance to win the national championship.
"They [McCauley and Bryant] will definitely help us. There was no doubt that Erica and Kris were the Waves' best players," added Santana, who coaches the girls basketball team at
Edgewood High School (Harford County). He said they will probably start -- McCauley at shooting guard, Bryant at forward -- in New Mexico.
Each team is guaranteed at least three games at the AAU Nationals. The Hoopers will play three games this weekend in a round-robin format. The top 22 teams will then advance to a double-elimination tournament to decide the national championship.
Long distance traveling aside, this is nothing new for McCauley or Bryant. They were part of a Howard County team that represented Maryland last July at the national 15-and-under AAU tournament in Charleston, W.Va. That team was eliminated after losing two of its first three games in the tournament.
The 5-foot-2 McCauley, the premier point guard and outside shooter in the county, is making her fourth trip to a national AAU tournament. McCauley led Hebron to a state championship as a sophomore, when she was the Howard County Sun's Co-Player of the Year. Last year, she led the Vikings to their 12th county title in 14 seasons by making a school-record 63 three-pointers ,, while averaging 13.7 points, 4.6 assists and only two turnovers per game.
Bryant, a 6-foot forward, blossomed into the county's top inside force last year after playing part-time for Hebron as a sophomore. She set a school record by hitting 56 percent of her shots while averaging 14.2 points and a team-high 10.2 rebounds. She was named the Howard County Sun's Player of vTC the Year and the Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year.
This marks an especially significant trip for McCauley and Bryant. They are a year away from college, where they plan to continue playing basketball. They figure to be seen by dozens of college recruiters from all over the country.
Both players praised Santana.
"I like him. His style is more up-tempo," McCauley said. "I feel like I'm at boot camp at practice, but the practices are good. He sets individual goals for us, and that's good. He seems like a great guy."
"He encourages you all the time, and he's going to do whatever he has to do to win," Bryant added.
The Hoopers lack size but hope to make up for it with quickness. Their roster consists of numerous stars from the Baltimore metropolitan area, including Sonia Chase, a 5-9 guard from McDonogh; Nyota Mitchell, a 6-0 forward from Randallstown; Lashina Groff, a 5-4 guard from Lake Clifton; Lonnie Matthews, a 5-8 forward from Milford Mill; Tina Fauntleroy, a 5-4 guard from Walbrook; and Monica Santana, a 5-7 forward from Edgewood.