The Youth Basketball of America Tournament in New Orleans often serves as a convenient, competitive warm-up for the more prestigious nationals later this month.
But for the Annapolis Stars, an Amateur Athletic Union 13-and-under girls team, the games have a different purpose.
"We're looking to get a lot of experience for next year," said Stars coach Calvin Vain Jr., whose squad leaves Saturday for the weeklong event. "And this will actually be our national tournament."
And they intend to make the most of it.
A four-point loss to the Ledo Lightning in the AAU state tournament in early May eliminated the Stars from national consideration. But this hasn't broken their spirit or wrecked their season.
Instead, they seem to be rolling right along, entering the Youth Basketball of America Tournament as the second seed behind the Tri-County Patriots of Virginia in the 16-team field.
"We're guaranteed four games," said Vain, who will celebrate his 25th birthday tomorrow. "I told them I don't know really what to expect down there. We don't want to say, 'Come in first,' and then it doesn't happen. Once we get down there, we'll make goals.
"I'm sure that, win or lose, these girls will have a good time."
They began the season in a sad manner, falling behind, 15-0, in their first game against Sterling, Va., in the Chesapeake Bay Hurricanes Tournament at St. Mary's. Vain's players, who had come into the game somewhat intimidated, looked poised for a total collapse.
"Their coach, before the game, was telling us, 'When I get up by 30, I'll take the press off,' " Vain recalled. "Jon [assistant coach Jon Harless] and I were like, 'That was kind of arrogant.' "
And grossly premature. Regaining their composure, the Stars rallied to within three points and had a chance to tie the score in the waning seconds before succumbing, 60-57. The Stars lost their next game, as well, but since have gone 8-2 to earn the high seeding and the respect of their opponents.
"After the first practice, I knew we were going to be really good this year," said 5-foot-3 guard Carrie Vain, the coach's sister. "We all knew what we were doing."
Carrie is one of three players back from last year's inaugural team, which placed ninth at the state meet while suffering the expected growing pains.
"We have more height than we had last year, and we also have better dribblers and shooters, and we have a better defense," she said.
A vital addition was 6-foot center Jennifer Holmes, who has emerged as the Stars' leading scorer (16 points per game) and rebounder (13 per game). She had 17 points and 14 rebounds against the Lightning and will have to put up similar numbers next week for the Stars to stave off elimination.
"They couldn't stop her, and we just kept going to her," said Coach Vain.
And with the Stars' deliberate offense, it isn't difficult to get Holmes the ball. They use most of the 30-second clock on each possession, looking to work the ball inside or to set up a sharp-shooting guard like Julie Smith -- the team's second-leading scorer at 12 points a game -- for the open jumper.
"We take our time," Vain said. "If we try to get a fast-break, we do not score."
Holmes thinks the Stars will score enough points next week, beginning with its first game against Flint, Mich., to win the tournament.
"Overall, we have a really good team, and I think we'll do well," she said.
"I guess, in the beginning of the year, we really didn't know each other. Now, we have a lot of fun."
Carrie Vain also believes the good times will continue in New Orleans.
L "They seeded us No. 2," she said, "and we hope to be No. 1."
Annapolis Stars roster
Player... ... ... Position... ... ... ... ..High School
Kristin Briggs... Guard... ... ... ... ... ...Northeast
Shannon Cashour.. Forward... ... ... ... ... . Spalding
Jennifer Holmes.. Center... ... ... ... .. Severna Park
Alicia Nagowski.. Guard... ... ... ... ... .. Broadneck
Anna Otto... ... .Forward... ... ... ... ... .Northeast
Stephanie Paxson. Guard/Forward... ... ... ... Spalding
Ebony Simms... .. Guard... ... ... ... ... .. .Old Mill
Julie Smith... .. Guard... ... ... ... ... ... Old Mill
Carrie Vain... .. Guard... ... ... ... ... Severna Park