The basketball squad at Newport News Shipbuilding is running through a series of offensive drills in the shipyard's gymnasium, and perspiration is showing through every man's practice jersey. The starters are wearing yellow jerseys and the rest are sporting blue.

Practice is specially serious because the team has won only one of its first nine games, and it's accustomed to doing better. Last year, the team went 10-13; the year before, 12-11. "We're not too hot this year," conceded one shipyard official.

If this all has the ring of another day in the life of an intercollegiate basketball team, it's because that is almost what it is. The players are students in the shipyard's Apprentice School, and they represent one of the school's eight intercollegiate teams.

A varsity sports program is one of the little extras that the world's largest shipyard - and Virginia's largest employer - likes to point to when it boasts that its apprentice training program is unique. "Our players are young guys (the average age is 21) who like to have something to look forward to besides working eight hours a day," said Bob Cockrell, the basketball coach and a 1970 Apprentice School graduate.

Playing on one of the school's teams takes a lot of dedication because there are no athletic scholarships and two hours practices can be fatiguing at the end of a long day, Cockrell sai.

On the other hand, having a varsity sports program attracts many apprentices who otherwise might go to college. And the blandishments at the Apprentice School are better than what you'll find at most academic insitutions.

The shipyard's four-year apprentice program is tution-free, and it leads to journeyman status in one of 19 shipbuilding trades and pretty much a guaranteed job. Along the way, apprentices earn about $45,000 and enjoy a host of benefits such as goup insurance, paid holidays and paid vacations.

None of this really is unusual as apprentice programs go. But the Apprentice School here offers a few advantages that other programs do no, and the sports program is foremost among them. It was adopted in 1919 - the same year that the school was founded.

There are 739 apprentices in the school this year, and more than 20 percent of them compete in intercollegiate basketball, football, baseball, soccer, wrestling, golf, track or tennis. Many apprentices play several sports.

Junior colleges an small, four-year institutions represent most of the competition, but in some sports the schedule includes National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 schools such as the College of William and Mary and Virginia Military Institute.

The program is funded by a weekly student activity fee of $1.25, and Newport News Shipbuilding provides the facilities and kicks in some of the equipment.

"With an athletic program, we can attract sports-minded individuals," said Norm Snead, an ex-National Football League quarterback and the school's admissions and recruitment director - plus football coach. "We find that someone who is athletically inclined is used to discipline and hard work."

Cockrell, the basketball coach, added that the school's athletes get more discipline playing on a team than they do on the job, and often become "tomorrow's leaders in the yard."

For those who don't like the rigidity of formalized practice, the shipyard has an extensive intramural sports program for its 23,000 employes, and it's open to apprentices. There's also a montly newspaper and a school yearbook, both edited and published by the students.

Shipyard officials think that the Apprentice School's faculty stands out, too.

Unlike other apprentice training programs, which they say often draw their academic staff from nearby colleges and technical schools, the school has 12 classroom instructors who all are full-time employes fo the shipyard. And the school's 59 craft instructors are all Apprentice School graduates.

The school, which costs the shipyard about $2 million a year, is designed to help fill the need for skilled shipyard mechanics, who are not generally avaiable in the labor force.

By training apprentices in all the various job within a craft, school officials say that the shipyard gets a pool of workers who can be moved around to different jobs as its work mix changes.

Admission to the school is highly competitive. Jim Wallace, the shipyard's director of training, said there are four or five applicants for each opening. Most of the applicants are high school gradutes from Virginia and eastern North Carolina - and they have to have at least four courses in mathematics or the sciences. Twenty-five percent of the applicants are college graduates.

The school bills itself as an "educational alternative" to college, and relies on contacts with high school guidance counselors and participation in high school career programs for much of its promotion.

"We really don't use a 'hard-sell' approach in recruitment," Wallace said. "The objective is to make people aware of our program as an alternative to continuing education and career planning."

It was no coincidence, however, when the school hired Snead in 1977 as its first full-time recruitment and admissions director. Snead, a Newport News native, spent 16 seasons with the NFL, finishing his career with the New York Giants. He speaks at about 50 engagements a year on behalf of the school. As often as not, his audiences consists of students.

If remarks from some of the school's apprentices are any indication, he probably doesn't have a tough time selling them on the school.

Taking a break from operating a drill in the mezzanine of the shipyard's main machine shop, Tim Bean, 17, said he is earning $4.74 an hour. Learning a trade also has its appeal, he added.

"I may go on to college after my four years here, but I wanted to learn a trade to have something to fall back on," Bean said. "The way I figure it, I can earn money first, get ahead, and then go to college."

Bean has just recovered from a broken collarbone that he suffered while playing free safety on the football team, but he remains an enthusiastic supporter of the school's athletic programs. "If I wasn't accepted here, I would have gone to college directly so that I could play sports," he said.

Mike Altizer, 20 came to the Apprentice School to learn pipefitting after a short stint in college.

"I was a physical education major," said Altizer, who plays basketball and wrestles for the Apprentice School. "But I couldn't see any sense in spending the next four years in college, and then go out looking for a job that would pay me the same I'm making now."

The apprentice program combines classroom instruction and on-the-job training. In the first year, apprentices spend 10 hours a week in the classroom taking courses in mathematics, science, mechanical drawing and shipbuilding. The other 30 hours are spent on the job, supplemented by additional instruction in trade theory.

By the middle of the second year, most apprentices spend virtually all their time on the job.

But for those who have the interest - and the grades - there is advanced classroom instruction for several quarters beyond that. Apprentices also can take additional courses on their own time at a local community college and get an associate's degree in applied science.

The school encourages general technical education because it helps shipyard mechanics to cope better with the changes new technology can bring to their crafts. In addition, school officials say that if an apprentice stays with the shipyard for much of his career, he's likely to find himself in a new job at some point.