The 9-3 drubbing the Prince William Panthers in-line hockey team suffered over Memorial Day weekend in the championship of a regional tournament did not leave Jesse Horneber or his teammates feeling as though they should move on to bigger and better competition.

"We just got smashed," Horneber said. "All our best players got thrown out, and by the time it was over, nobody really felt like playing anymore."

But when goalie Phillip Samselski learned Fairfax--the team that administered the drubbing--would not be accepting its automatic bid to the USA Inline National Championships, some players began to change their tune. Samselski sent in an application for an at-large bid, and, today, 10 weeks after being humbled by Fairfax, the Panthers are headed to Chicago as the lone representative from the Southeast Region.

The Panthers, the Prince William Hockey Club's 17-and-under in-line team, consist of 12 players from area high schools including Osbourn, Osbourn Park, Manassas Park and Woodbridge. Four of the players also play ice hockey at the travel level, but most are strictly in-line hockey players.

Forward Jeremy Batozynski hooked Samselski and Bobby Dempsey on the game when he received a street hockey goal as a gift in seventh grade. Forward Pat Vogt joined that crew less than a year later.

"Right before my family moved here from Oklahoma, my bike got stolen and my parents didn't have the money to buy me a new one, so they got me Rollerblades instead," Vogt said. "One day I was out skating around, and I found these guys playing hockey, and I've played it ever since. I've played a lot of sports like soccer, baseball and football, but this is by far my favorite because it is so fast-paced and requires so many skills."

The sport, which has blossomed in popularity since in-line skates became popular in the late 1980s, is nearly identical to ice hockey. In the in-line version, there are four skaters and a goalie, one fewer skater than in ice hockey, and no body checking.

"The major difference with in-line is that you can't stop on a dime," said Bruce Dautrich, the Panthers head coach. "There is no offsides and no icing, but the basic strategies are the same as ice hockey."

The Panthers are in just their third season together and their second in the upper tier of competition known as travel. In their first season, the Panthers mopped up the recreational tier known as "house," so they joined the Northern Virginia travel league the next year.

In two seasons of travel, the Panthers have had their ups and downs but have gradually improved, Batozynski said. But the team did not begin to gain confidence for this weekend's tournament until the Northern Virginia league playoffs in mid-June.

Although the Panthers lost the championship game to Ashburn in a shootout--after regulation and overtime ended 5-5--Vogt said the team realized its potential.

"This is our third season together, but for a lot of us it's our last season together," Vogt said. "What that championship game let us know was that we can play with anybody."

Last week Dautrich criticized his players about allowing breakaways during a scrimmage they otherwise dominated against the 14-and-under Slapshotz Sabres, a Fredericksburg team that also will compete in Chicago.

"If we concentrate on defense first," Dautrich said, "we will do all right." The coach wants his team to "emulate the style" of another group of Panthers, the NHL's Florida franchise that rode a hot goalie and team defense to the 1995 Stanley Cup finals.

The Panthers will have four games of pool play to determine their seeding in the single-elimination rounds, which include all 16 teams in the age group.

The Panthers seem to welcome comments from naysayers who believe they cannot compete against national caliber competition. They have learned to embrace the role of underdog and to use such comments as motivation.

"We know it's possible that we'll get killed," Horneber said. "It's in the back of our minds, but the way I look at it, we've made it this far so who cares if we don't win. We can still call ourselves one of the top 16 teams in the nation."

Note: The Prince William Panthers first game is Thursday at 4 p.m. Tournament results will be posted on the Internet at www.usahockey.com. Click on the USA Inline icon and then Tournaments.