The world series of basketball

Tournament: Amateur Athletic Union ball gives promising high school players a better chance to be seen by college coaches.

April 22, 2001|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most youth sports these days offer competition for high-skill players that ends with some claim to annual national honors. Soccer has State Cup tournaments. Baseball has a variety of "world series," depending on a league's affiliation. In football, it's Pop Warner play.

For basketball players, it's Amateur Athletic Union ball, a competition that is national in scope and that begins locally this weekend, scheduled to avoid high school play. AAU ball is played in a tournament format that college scouts often attend and that, by early August, will produce national boys and girls titlists in various age groups.

Three Howard County organizations are sponsoring at least a dozen girls age-group teams and six for boys this spring.

The Maryland Waves, which call Wilde Lake High home, accounts for 10 of those local teams. Waves President Curry Stone recently took a team to a tournament in Hampton, Va., where, he said, about 100 girls teams and 200 boys teams competed in front of some 300 college scouts.

"Basically, that's how they get scholarships," says Curry, who notes that scouts typically don't drop in at high school games. "A lot of girls get seen during AAU." He's particularly proud of one team which was formed when players were 10 years old; now sophomores, they compete for River Hill, Mount Hebron and Glenelg high schools.

Josh Gross, 17, a 6-foot-5-inch Long Reach High School senior, appreciates the exposure to scouts but, more important, playing against star athletes in the AAU program run by Guilford's First Baptist Church, which has six boys teams, three for 17- year-olds.

"It gives me exposure to better players," Gross says. "It helps your game when you play against people who are better than you."

Adds Matt Trammel, who travels from New Market in Frederick County to First Baptist to play, and will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., after prep school next year: "AAU exposes you to the type of basketball that's played in college."

Fred H. McCathorine, known as "Coach Mac," started First Baptist's AAU program in 1991. A coach since 1985, he leads 15- and 17-and-under teams there. His players recently competed at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, in front of about 200 college coaches. And his 17s competed in Orlando, Fla., in front of about 325.

McCathorine also likes AAU ball because it gets men involved as coaches and organizers, and gives them a chance to coach players about life lessons.

"If you're going to wear my church's name across your chest, how do you act? How do you carry yourself?" he says. Traveling, he notes, puts players "in a situation that's kind of nonthreatening, and they'll talk with you about things going on in their lives. When I get out like that, I let them talk, and we try to give our own life experiences."

One criticism of AAU ball is that its competitive nature keeps players from other spring sports or even just getting a break from basketball.

"My biggest concern is that the high school sports should also take precedence," says Scott Robinson, a basketball and lacrosse coach at Mount Hebron High. "[And] it's healthy for kids to get a break from the sport for a bit."

Nationally focused teams might feel pressure to choose basketball over other sports, says Phil Gugliotti, coach of the Howard County Youth Program Cougars, "but many of my girls are lacrosse players, and some are playing softball."

Some AAU programs have only one team, while others are basketball factories, with A- and B-level teams in every age group.

And although some teams travel extensively - raising money to pay their way - Gugliotti prefers tournaments that are day trips. He estimates that 400 or 500 tournaments are held between March and November, with eight or 10 each weekend.

"There's a great amount of flexibility," he says. "You can generate a schedule where you travel a great deal or a schedule where you play locally."

Local AAU play

Tournaments to determine Maryland Amateur Athletic Union titlists and thus competitors in regional and, possibly, national AAU play include some games to be played at Howard County high schools.

Boys teams began competing yesterday at Long Reach and Howard highs. Games also are scheduled at those schools today, Saturday and April 29.

Girls teams will compete May 4-6, 11-13, and 18-20, with local gym arrangements still being firmed up.

Maryland is defined by AAU as Baltimore and all counties except Montgomery and Prince George's. Teams there are part of the Potomac Valley AAU.

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