Gwynn Park boys basketball coach Steve Matthews knew he would be faced with several tough decisions last week, as varsity basketball tryouts began on Nov. 15. Often, coaches say--with sincerity--that making cuts is the hardest part of their jobs.

But for Matthews, the hardest week to endure is the week before tryouts. He says he gets tired of waiting for the season to begin. Last week, faced with drills and cuts and anxiety, Matthews was happy.

"I like this part of the season because you're looking for surprises," Matthews said. "Maybe someone is playing better. That's why we're here. Sometimes people say that your team is already picked [before tryouts begin], but if no one came out, I wouldn't have a job. [Tryouts] make me work; they're exciting. Sports are filled with defeats and wins; you're excited to make the team, upset if you don't make the team."

Public schools throughout the county began basketball practice on Nov. 15. For some teams, such as the Gwynn Park boys, last week brought fierce competition among players for spots on the varsity team. For other teams, such as the DuVal girls, the first week of practice was just that--practice.

On the Cusp

Kenya Britain was worried.

The 6-foot guard was a member of the Gwynn Park varsity basketball team as a sophomore and junior, yet this year--his senior year--he was worried that he might not make the team. Several factors contributed to his concern.

A car accident on March 29 left Britain with a fractured left ankle that prevented him from playing basketball until the middle of May. This fall, Britain decided to play football for the first time, after promising Gwynn Park football coach Danny Hayes last spring that he would join the team.

That meant Britain was unable to play in a fall basketball league with the Yellow Jackets, and he had only one week between the end of football season and the start of basketball tryouts to prepare. He spent that week in the gym, alone, working on his shooting and dribbling.

But what concerned Britain the most was the fierce competition he expected at tryouts. Gwynn Park made a surprising run to the Maryland 3A final last season after finishing the regular season with a sub-.500 record. All five starters from that team are back, and add to the mix one transfer from Grace Brethern and several players from a junior varsity team that went 20-0 last season.

The Yellow Jackets often had 18 players show up for summer league games. Twenty-two players came out for the varsity team on Monday, and Matthews would have to cut that number to 12 by Friday.

"It's good and bad," said Matthews, who's in his eighth year as Gwynn Park's head coach. "I'd rather have this situation because we've got a lot of good kids, and you like to provide for good kids. The first few days have been intense. We've had good practices this week."

Britain was nervous all week, even though his teammates and friends kept telling him he would make the team. He was pleased with his play in Wednesday's intrasquad scrimmage, but felt that he needed to improve his decision-making.

"It's stressful," Britain said. "You're concerned the whole time. In your mind, you think, 'Did I do good? What did I do wrong?' When you make a mistake, it takes a toll on you. You think, 'Did the coaches see that?' If you're skating on thin ice, you think about it. The more comfortable I am, the more confidence I have, and the better my game is. I want to do everything right. . . .

"There's more pressure on a senior for tryouts because you've been here, and there are some things you're supposed to know," Britain said. "A freshman can make mistakes, but if you've been in the program, you can't make as many mistakes. If you don't do your job, a freshman or junior is there to take your spot. Things are really competitive, and that's all for the better. It makes everybody better in the process."

But it makes for some tough decisions for Matthews. His goal is to maintain a quality program, and sometimes that means keeping a younger player who has potential and is willing to sit on the bench instead of a senior who wants to play. Britain said he understands that.

"I'll be devastated if I don't make the team," Britain said on Wednesday. "But it's not in my hands. Coach Matthews is a very good coach, and if I don't make the team, it's because I'm not qualified for what he's looking for. I'll just have to move on."

Ready to Play

Practice is winding down on Thursday night at DuVal High School in Lanham, and Coach Walter Clark is trying to get as much accomplished as he can before he lets his players go home for the night.

At one end of the court, the Tigers' five starters--seniors Vernessa Neamo, Chinny Nwagbo, Yolanda Jefferson, Lynette Clark and Jimmien Strong--are running through the team's inbound plays. They pass the ball sharply, each player already certain where they should be on the court, and they laugh and joke with each other.

"Nothing is really new," Lynette Clark, the coach's daughter, said. "Most of this stuff I've been doing for years. We just want to do it better than before."

At the opposite end of the court, Walter Clark and assistant coach Keith Devoe work with eight younger players on the same inbound plays. Devoe explains what each player is expected to do, and then the girls run through the plays.

The first week of practice at DuVal is not about tryouts. "It never has been, because we don't have enough kids," said Clark, who has been the head coach at DuVal for 15 years. "We're not like Largo, where 50 to 60 girls come out. We only get about 15. . . . I know every kid in the building who can play, and based on open gyms I pretty much know what we've got."

Because of their small numbers, the Tigers can start working on their offenses and defenses on the first day. "I can start teaching right away," Clark said. "We come out of the chute teaching and getting in condition."

DuVal has five players returning from last year's Maryland 3A title team--the five players who scored for the Tigers in their 73-38 championship victory over Milford Mill of Baltimore (Neamo, Nwagbo, Jefferson, Clark and Strong).

All five players are beginning their fourth season with the DuVal varsity team. Neamo, Nwagbo, Jefferson and Clark started last season; Strong was the team's top reserve. Neamo (George Mason), Nwagbo (Syracuse) and Jefferson (University of Maryland-Baltimore County) already have signed letters-of-intent to play college basketball.

For those players, the first week of practice is something to look forward to--"It gets me motivated for the season," Neamo said--but it's also something that needs to be endured. The regular season starts the week of Dec. 6.

"It's strenuous," Nwagbo said. "You just want to get through it and get to the action. We have to push ourselves and work hard, and we try to motivate one another. That's what helps us get through practices and get through games, and that's what helped us win a championship last year."

Editor's note: Kenya Britain found out on Friday that he had made Gwynn Park's varsity squad. DuVal's girls kept preparing for the season opener, which is less than two weeks away.