Frustrated by a sloppy practice about a week before the season opener, Osbourn boys basketball coach Mike Dufrene could watch no more and disgustedly left the gym before the end of the session. But before heading home, he fired a parting shot at his five seniors, all of whom were projected starters: "If this is the type of program you want, then fine."

About 90 minutes after he exited in a huff, Dufrene's phone rang at home. It was senior forward Joe Lane, who first apologized for the team's unfocused effort and then informed Dufrene that the Eagles had stuck around after the coach had left to talk about what had gone wrong and to practice some on their own.

"I get off the phone," Dufrene said, "and my wife looks at me smiling and says, 'You had that planned, didn't you?' I said it was a test to see how they'd respond because they'd never seen me like that. If they would have left right after me, I would have been very concerned. I came back [the next day] and told the kids that was a test, and that they passed the test so far."

Since then, the Eagles (4-1) have done far more than just pass; they have almost aced all five games. And they believe they can continue that successful streak Monday through Wednesday on their home floor in the Kiwanis Holiday Classic tournament. Osbourn will play Seton, North Stafford and Osbourn Park in the round-robin event.

As a 5-17 team that dropped nine games by five points or fewer in 1998-99, the returning Osbourn players know how the outcome of a game can hinge on one decision or one call. Apparently, the outcome of a season can, as well--the seniors' decision to discuss their soft practice and to call Dufrene has turned out to be crucial.

"I think that's when we really became a team," senior point guard Joel D'Antignac said.

"It made us come together and say we're not going through what we did last year," senior guard Jon Latimer said. "There's no way I could go through [what] we did last year. No way."

The lines of communication have remained open. After practice one day, Dufrene was about to leave to scout Stonewall Jackson when a couple of players asked him if he would like to eat with them before the game. Five players met the coaches for dinner, and eight of 12 Eagles turned out at the game.

"That's never happened before," Dufrene said. "I've never seen any of our kids at another game watching our opponent. I told them the best thing about the whole situation was you guys initiated it. I didn't have to ask you to go to the game or grab a bite to eat. You guys did it yourself."

Osbourn's five seniors--D'Antignac, Latimer, guard John Horton and forwards Lane and Damien Williams--are an oddity in that as the team's lone 12th-graders, they all just happen to dovetail into a starting five because they all have different skills.

"Everything just falls into place perfectly," Horton said. "It's weird."

D'Antignac, who scored in double figures the first four games, gives the Eagles a point guard who can handle the pressure dished out by perennial Cardinal District bullies Potomac, Gar-Field and Woodbridge. Dufrene considers Latimer potentially the team's best all-around player. Horton, who missed most of last season with a broken foot and mononucleosis, has the team's two highest-scoring games this season with 25 points against Courtland--a Virginia AAA state quarterfinalist last spring--and 19 against Broad Run.

Williams, currently nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of the most recent game, can score inside or out. He has two 15-point games this season. Lane, who until about a week before tryouts was not going to play basketball so he could concentrate on baseball, is a gritty hustler averaging close to double figures in both points and rebounds.

"With the seniors we have, I feel like this is the year to make a statement with our program," said Dufrene, in his second year coaching at his alma mater. "Where do we go from here? If we don't start to get the job done this year with the seniors, I told the kids, I don't know if we ever will. . . . We have a great opportunity the way we're playing right now."

The seniors also knew that they had to establish ownership of the team in November and December, or they would not be playing much come January.

"I told them if you don't get the job done early, your season's over," Dufrene said. "We're not going through a 5-17 record again with a bunch of seniors. We're going with underclassmen."

The Eagles are trying to shake the notion that playing Gar-Field or Potomac or Woodbridge close counts as a victory of sorts. That's why Dufrene was pleased to see so many players upset after a 66-62 loss at No. 7 Potomac. Osbourn, which has tended to fall behind in games this season, rallied from 13 points down in the second half to pull to within one with 10 seconds left. They then failed to haul in a rebound on a missed Potomac free throw, and the Panthers scored on a putback to clinch the win.

"Some people may think it's a shock or whatever," Lane said of the 4-1 start. "But we think it's just how it should be."

Almost equally pleasing was the outing after the Potomac game, when the Eagles thumped Broad Run, 92-45, showing neither lingering self-satisfaction from hanging with Potomac nor lack of focus even playing an inferior team.

"We're constantly reminding [the seniors], hey, this is our team, but more importantly, it's your team because this is your final year," Dufrene said. "How do you want to end up? I've told them time and time again that this school, this town, is dying for a winner. Whoever that team may be, I think the school and the community is really going to jump on board. We've had a lot of school spirit here [this season]. A lot of people are talking about our kids, and they're coming out to see what we have."

New onlookers might show up this week, with the six-team Kiwanis tournament taking place on Osbourn's new home floor. Because it is a round-robin event, there will be no championship game, though a champion will be crowned using a system of tie-breakers.

"I think the biggest thing about this tournament for us is winning it so our kids can have that sense of a championship environment," Dufrene said. "Coming together on that floor and lifting that trophy in the air just so I can say: 'This is what it takes right here. This is what it's all about. Imagine down the road if this is the Cardinal District championship trophy.' That's something I think we need to experience."

Kiwanis Holiday Classic

at Osbourn High School

Dec. 27

Marshall vs. Hylton, 5

Osbourn Park vs. North Stafford, 7

Seton vs. Osbourn, 9

Dec. 28

Marshall vs. Osbourn Park, 5

Osbourn vs. North Stafford, 7

Hylton vs. Seton, 9

Dec. 29

North Stafford vs. Hylton, 5

Seton vs. Marshall, 7

Osbourn Park vs. Osbourn, 9

Note: If two teams tie with the best record, the head-to-head winner will prevail as champion. If the tied teams did not play, their records vs. common tourney opponents would serve as tiebreaker. If the teams remain tied, the school with the greater three-game differential between points scored and points allowed will be crowned champion.

Admission: $5 a day or $10 for a three-day pass.

CAPTION: Osbourn Coach Mike Dufrene addresses his players: "With the seniors we have, I feel like this is the year to make a statement with our program.".

CAPTION: Led by its all-senior starting lineup, Osbourn's boys basketball team is a win away from equaling its five-win total of a season ago. The starters are, clockwise from bottom right, guard Jon Latimer, guard Joel D'Antignac, forward Joe Lane and guard John Horton. Not pictured is forward Damien Williams.