It used to be that Northern Virginia high school basketball teams spent their winter break in the seclusion of a school gym practicing (often twice a day), while their classmates enjoyed the vacation. It was a time for coaches to iron out in private any rough spots which had appeared during the three or four games played before the holidays.

When classes and the basketball season resumed in early January, fans often saw changes in line-ups, strategy and, eventually, league standings - a result of tactics institued during the vacation.

But as competition for victories on the court and for dollars at the gate has increased over the years, a growing number of area schools have given up the quiet holiday practice gym for the noisier one a holiday basketball tournament offers.

Six Northern Virginia high schools - Jefferson, Edison, Mt. Vernon, Groveton, George Mason and O'Connell - hosted holiday tournaments last week involving 32 terms. Four schools - T. C. Williams, Lee, West Springfield and Ireton - travelled to tournaments out of the area.

Tournament are not always money-makers, particularly before they become traditions, and athletic directors note that exposure is often a more important factor than money in deciding if a school will host or enter a tournament.

"Tournaments just provide the opportunity to do something different over the holidays," said William Abell, athletic director of West Springfield's basketball team participated last week in the Tri-State Tournament with Lee High School, Thomas Johnson of Frederick, Md., and Jefferson County High School of Charlestown, W. Va. The tournament's first round was at Lake Braddock Secondary School Burke and the second round was in Charlestown.

"Our coach (Jim Warren) worked up the tournament idea," Abell said. "He wanted to give the kids a chance for some exposure, other than local. In the past, Lee and West Springfield played a home-and-home series (a game at one school followed by a game at the other) over the holidays, but the coaches didn't really like playing two games that close together against the same team. It did provide a chance to make some money, though."

Abell said he "covered expenses" for the Tri-State trip and that Thomas Johnson received $300 for its expenses since the team "had to travel to both locations."

Alexandria's Groveton High School hosted and won its second annual holiday tournament last week, inviting local rival Fort Hunt and two Maryland high schools, Central and Oxon Hill. "We were one of the last schools in the area to decide to have a tournament and we had to get some schools to fill out the field," said Groveton athletic director Al Frazee in explaining why the Maryland schools were invited.

The tournament potted the two local schools against the two Maryland schools in the first round, and Frazee said "it would have been a disaster" if either Virginia school had lost because "nobody would have come" to a final round without a local attraction. The Virginia school won, setting up a Groveton - Fort Hunt final which drew enough fans to give Frazee reason to speculate that "we might break even."

Expenses for the two-day tournament, according to Frazee, totalled "between $700 and $800," including $240 for officials, $200 for ticket-takers and other game workers, and more than $100 for trophies. Fort Hunt received "some of the gate," according to Frazee, but "the Maryland schools didn't make anything because they didn't bring anybody (fans).

"The main reason for having the tournament is to give the kids some exposure and to gain some prestige for the school."

Often schools with successful basketball teams, in order to showcase their talent, will invite weaker teams to their tournament. Such is not the case at Arlington's O'Connell High School which has hosted its Christman Tournament for 17 consecutive years and has never won the tournament.

"We're just interested in bringing outstanding basketball to the area, said Al Burch, O'Connell principal and former athletic director. The O'Connel tournament, which traditionally brings in outstanding high school teams from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in addition to local schools, has featured players such as Adrian Dantley, Len Elmore, Jap Trimble, James Spanarkel, Mike o-koren and Brian Winters before they went on to college or professional fame.

Tom McNichol, athletic director at O'Connell, said the school spent about $3,000 on this year's tournament and pays for all major expenses, including transportation and accommodations, for the teams it invites.

"The tournament's not a bigh money-maker," McNichol said. "In fact, I think it lost money last year." This year, McNichol said, ticket sales and a 76-page tournament program filled with ads are expected to offset expenses.

Doesn't O'Connell get tired of hosting and losing its own tournament year after year?

"It would be nice to win," Burch conceded, "but we just enjou bringin top notch basketball teams into the area."