Every weekday in the early hours, before traffic clogs the Beltway, Greg Tencza endures a 50-minute drive from his Potomac home in Montgomery County to DeMatha High School in Hyattsville. The reason: to play basketball for perhaps the most prestigious high school team in the country.

After a long day of school, he puts on a prized DeMatha practice jersey and shoots the ball through the hoop with the same slight backspin his starting teammates were taught. He runs "suicides" with intense abandon and moves his feet furiously on defense.

However, Tencza rarely plays in games.

Across Montgomery County, Brian Kerr stays close to home, attending Paint Branch High School along the Route 29 corridor.

At Paint Branch, in contrast to DeMatha, one usually wouldn't see Digger Phelps or Dean Smith scouting in the gym unless another Tracy Jackson came along. Nor do reserves, as a rule, get scholarships. And it's not too often the Panthers are ranked nationally.

So what's in it for a player, especially a senior, who rarely plays, to stick around?

For Kerr, a 5-10 point guard and the only senior on the Panthers' 12-2 squad, it is an anomaly to see playing time unless Paint Branch has a large lead late in the game. If the score is close, the sweat suit doesn't come off until after the game.

Both Kerr and Tencza sit by choice. Each realizes he probably would be playing somewhere else.

"All of us know that at any other high school in this area or even in the country, we could be starters or seeing more playing time," says Tencza, a senior point guard. "Playing for DeMatha has always been a dream. When I was in the sixth grade, I wanted to come to DeMatha.

"Some of my local high school coaches have said, 'Why don't you come back? We'll promise you'll never come out and you'll play every second in every game and be a star.'

"I made my decision. I love this program and the coaching staff . . . The season isn't over; my turn may still come up."

Those sitting on the bench at DeMatha have several incentives to stick with the program, perhaps the overriding one being the almost certainty that they will get a full college scholarship. In the last 25 years at DeMatha under Coach Morgan Wootten, every varsity player, starter or reserve, has had the opportunity for a full scholarship.

Mike Colclough, a tall, slender senior, is in the unfortunate position of playing behind DeMatha's widely recruited center, Danny Ferry. Still, Colclough responds confidently when asked why he stayed at DeMatha.

"I thought of transferring last year when I didn't make the varsity team," says Colclough, who would have attended Eleanor Roosevelt. "Last year (Wootten) gave me the opportunity to play jayvee and I took the opportunity and now I'm on varsity and will probably get a full-year scholarship. The thing about DeMatha is that playing jayvee is equal to playing public school varsity.

"You wait for your chance," senior guard Vic Roy said. "But to wait, you have to be ready."

Roy isn't accustomed to playing second fiddle. A standout defensive player on the football team, he met with Wootten at the beginning of the season to discuss the probability of sitting on the bench.

Without hesitation, Roy convinced Wootten of his desire to play. "I said I would work hard as ever," Roy said. "I knew I would be behind people, but I'm going to push them. What makes our team so good is that our second team makes our first team work so hard."

"I've always said that a good team has to have good people in the background," says Wootten. "They understand their role and they make practice competitive."

Tencza and Colclough have faced pressure, from peers or intrinsically, to quit the team.

"There's a lot of pressure," Colclough said. "(My friends) are always asking 'Why aren't you dunking? Why don't you get too much time?' Or, 'How come you put up with sitting on the bench and people will heckle you all the time?' I realize at DeMatha if you work hard, the rewards will come to you in the end."

Tencza said, "As far as pressure, I went back to my old junior high and everybody said, 'You'll be lucky to make the freshman team.' And then I made varsity and everybody thought I was wasting my high school years. I had paid the price and worked so hard running, jump roping and doing ballhandling drills. And here I am, sitting at DeMatha.

Whereas a second-string player at DeMatha can enjoy the benefits -- scholarships, trips around the country and prestige -- Kerr is left at Paint Branch with more basic reasons to play basketball.

Kerr accepts his role at Paint Branch and feels he has the potential to contribute in games. "I guess maybe during preseason I could have gotten a little more time with the starting team, because it seems if you're with the starting team, you have better people around you and you can play better," he said.

Sometimes near the end of the game, friends will chant Kerr's name, hoping he will be put in. Kerr says he can only smile, glad that they acknowledge he's on the team. But if it were up to him, he might not always enter the game.

"Toward the end of the game, I'd rather not play," he admits. "I'd rather not get in with one minute left. If you make a mistake, you don't always have a chance to redeem yourself and show (the coach) you can play."

But Kerr keeps pressing, confident of his ability and sure of his aversion toward quitting.

"Sometimes when I get real tired, I say, 'Why am I running? I'm not going to play tomorrow,' " he says. "But I wouldn't stop because I don't want to be considered a quitter.

"I think there are a lot of teams around I could start for and make their team good. In preseason, every once in a while I got in against a first-string point guard and I saw I could stop him.

"I live on the border of Laurel and Paint Branch, and I know I could start for Laurel, but I'd rather go here."

And then there's always the hope of playing college ball.

"Somebody was telling me I might be able to make the team at Frostburg," he says. Then he adds with reservation, "I don't know if I'm really considering that. I figure in college I'm going to have to get on with life."