Some say St. Mary's Ryken's tiny gymnasium offers an advantage for the home team. Others, like Ryken boys coach J.P. Jones, argue that it favors the quicker team--and that, often, is not his Knights.

There's one consensus, however: St. Mary's Ryken is a tough place for everyone to play.

"It's definitely different," said Knights sharpshooter Chad Maloney, a senior. "Maybe in some respects it is an advantage for us, because we're used to playing here, but I can tell you that I'd always prefer to be on the road."

There are several factors that make Ryken's gym unique. The first is the size of the gym. It holds between 400 and 500 people. Bleachers line just one side of the gym and run but five rows deep. There is very little space outside the opposite sideline, just enough for the teams' benches.

The court itself is 12 feet shorter than any other court in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.

The floor is different, too. It's not hardwood, but instead a plastic surface filled with diamond-shaped holes.

"That floor is just nasty," said Thomas Stone forward Jewel Clark. "The worst part is if you trip up and fall. You can deal with the way the ball bounces, but if you fall you'll leave with a not-so-nice memory from Ryken."

It's not exactly rug-burn, but a fall on the plastic surface leaves a similarly painful and lasting mark. Maloney, who likens the playing surface to the hard, hole-filled mats that are often found in public showers or near swimming pools, said he has marks on one shoulder, both elbows and both knees--just from the preseason.

"I guess I usually look like this all season," Maloney said. "That floor definitely leaves an impression. And if you fall and slide, that's when you're really in trouble."

Said Chopticon girls coach Tony Lisanti: "My girls always come home looking like they've got diamond-shaped tattoos."

The small gym makes life harder on the teams that practice there, as well.

Unlike the rest of the SMAC gyms, there are no baskets on the sides of the gym that can be lowered for practice. Most schools have six buckets to shoot at in practice; the Knights have two.

"What it means is that the coach has to be real inventive," Jones said. "I used to like to run three-man shooting drills, which I assume most people in the conference do. Instead, we have to go with eight-man drills. That's difficult."

A plan for a new gym--in fact, an entirely new sports complex that will include a basketball court and an indoor track--is in the works, but it wouldn't be completed for five years.

"My first thought when I walked in the gym as a freshman was, 'When are they going to rebuild this?' " Maloney said. "I guess they finally are. . . . Just too bad I won't be around to see it."