* Manassas Park 41,

Madison County 37

Manassas Park senior guard Sidney Welch had a bittersweet reaction the first day of tryouts when team leader Price Ward told him he planned to give up basketball to concentrate on football.

This undoubtedly would mean more playing time for Welch, a transfer from Osbourn. But, on the other hand, Welch was looking forward to going up against Ward, a second-team all-Bull Run District pick who was the team's leading scorer last year.

"At first I was kind of disappointed, because I really wanted to see where my talent is against him," said Welch, who scored 16 points Tuesday in a 41-37 home win over Madison County in the Bull Run District opener. "I wanted to go against the best, from what everybody said. Price is great. I don't know if I can fill his shoes. He's made a statement here."

Welch, who averaged 3.5 ppg as an Osbourn reserve last season, has quickly made one of his own, averaging 15.6 points in his first five games at Manassas Park (3-2). Against Madison, he made eight consecutive free throws in the second half and did the bulk of the ballhandling.

In fact, Cougars Coach Bob Schaul has so much confidence in Welch that in certain late-game situations, he lets him dribble around the half court until he gets fouled, and when Welch goes to the line, Schaul then dispatches the other four players to the other end of the court because the transfer is such an accurate free-throw shooter.

"He makes good decisions with the ball, and I know he's quick enough that no one's going to stop him," Schaul said. "I don't want the ball out of his hands" in crucial parts of games.

"He's basically the team leader now," said sophomore forward A.C. Fitchett, who had eight rebounds, three blocks and five points Tuesday. "We follow what he does, and while we're following what he does, he has to learn from us because we have more experience.

"Of course it's going to be hard losing someone [like Ward] who's been playing for so long, but like everyone says, we can win with or without whoever. If we play our game, it doesn't matter who we have and who we don't have."

Uncharacteristically, Welch did commit about seven turnovers, most of them unforced, against Madison County, but the Mountaineers were plenty generous themselves, turning the ball over 23 times. Senior guard Curtis Atkinson, the team's leading scorer, attempted two shots and did not score.

Madison, which returned six points and two rebounds per game from last year's 7-16 team, nursed a three-point lead at the midway point of the fourth period until Welch tied the game with a jumper from the right corner, the Cougars' first basket of the quarter.

Manassas Park, which played most of the night without junior center Shamel Boyd, who picked up three fouls the first 1 minute 42 seconds, made 7 of 9 free throws thereafter to seal the win.

With Welch running the show, the Cougars committed one turnover from 7:29 of the fourth quarter until the final seconds, when the game was in hand.

"The big thing [Welch] brings is composure," Madison County Coach Phil Warren said. "They're almost identical teams, but last year you could count on them kind of getting out of control. I thought he was very composed and made sure everybody was in the right place and made sure the ball got where it was supposed to go on every possession and knocked down his free throws at the end of the ballgame. That's what you want your point guard to be able to do."

Madison's Branden Tinsley, left, defends sophomore forward A.C. Fitchett of Manassas Park, which is 3-2. Sidney Welch, a transfer from Osbourn High, is averaging 15.6 points over his first five games for Manassas Park after averaging 3.5 points per game as a reserve last season.