On one side of the Fairfax City Auto Dealers Holiday Classic bracket are Virginia AAA schools Washington-Lee, Jefferson and Westfield, and private school Flint Hill. On the other side of the bracket are Manassas Park and AAA schools Centreville, Fairfax and Stuart.

Manassas Park? A single-A school mixing it up with some of the larger schools in Fairfax County?

The Cougars may have a break from classes, but they opted to give themselves perhaps their stiffest tests of the winter by dipping their toes into the AAA talent pool today through Saturday at Fairfax High School.

"It's definitely a big step," said second-year coach Bob Schaul, whose team opens tournament play at 6:30 p.m. against Centreville, a school about three times as populous as his own. "I think our starting five, six, seven people can compete with anyone. They're pumped up. They never got that opportunity before. They want to play the best. Hopefully, that's going to be a building block for our team."

Last season, the Cougars played in the Dudley Martin Chevrolet Holiday Classic at Brentsville. The defending champion from that inaugural event, Osbourn Park, also has opted for a greater challenge by entering the Mount Vernon Christmas Tournament.

"We enjoyed the [Brentsville] tournament last year, but with a veteran squad, we wanted to up the competition a little bit to better prepare ourselves for a tough regular season," said Yellow Jackets Coach Dan Lawray, whose team beat Emmanuel Christian, North Stafford and Brentsville en route to winning the Dudley Martin title. "I felt that may have hurt us a little last year. We did well in the lead-up games, but it didn't prepare us for what was coming up."

Osbourn Park opens tournament play against Maryland team Springbrook (0-3).

Hylton, another Mount Vernon tournament entry, has played one game because of the late-running football season. Seven players off the Virginia AAA state title squad are now on the basketball team, including the starting back court of Jerome Quinata, the team's lone senior, and juniors Deon Butler and Endor Cooper.

The Mount Vernon event was crucial last year for the Bulldogs, who dropped their first three games of the season before settling in to win 14 of their next 17. But Hylton did not have as many late-arriving football players in 2001.

"The transition, as far as knowing what's expected and what type of things we like to run, will be easier because we kept five sophomores last year, and they're all playing for us this year," second-year Hylton coach Kevin Brown said. "So as far as knowing what we do in practice, we don't have to teach everything all over again.

"But at the same time, when you don't have your three starting guards, it's going to be a little tougher adjustment."

In the first round, the Bulldogs will play West Potomac, which has equaled its three-win total of last season. Stonewall Jackson (4-1) plays the host Majors (4-2) in another first-round game.

New Champion I With Osbourn Park playing elsewhere, the Dudley Martin Chevrolet Holiday Classic at Brentsville will crown a new champion in its second year of existence. Virginia AAA school Marshall and Hedgesville (W.Va.) are new to the tournament.

"I think there's a chance for some upsets," Brentsville Coach Doug Poppe said. "It's like a miniature NCAA -- everybody's looking for the upset."

Brentsville reached the championship last year and almost erased an 11-point second-half Osbourn Park lead, whittling it to one before Jon Pierce made four free throws in the final 17 seconds.

New Champion II

The Annandale Winter Classic, which includes the Potomac and Stonewall Jackson girls, will crown a new champion, with two-year titlist Hylton now playing in the Stafford Winter Classic.

Hylton senior guard Jasmine Byrd was the MVP of the Annandale tournament the past two years. Potomac junior guard Tiffany Jenkins made the 2001 all-tournament team there.

Hylton Coach Melvin Smith this season has opted for the Stafford event, which includes Woodbridge and Osbourn and three Commonwealth District teams that the Bulldogs conceivably could encounter in the postseason.

"I think it's time to move on and be challenged," said Smith, whose team opens against Albemarle. "We want to make sure we're challenged because our district is a whole lot tougher and more competitive than last year. We had the talent last year, and this year we're playing with just two returning starters."

Woodbridge reached the Stafford tournament championship last season, losing, 73-61, to eventual Virginia AAA state champion Princess Anne, which finished 29-0. Princess Anne, from Virginia Beach, plays Stafford in the first round of this year's event.

Holiday Visitors The Forest Park boys are the only Prince William area public school team not playing in a holiday tournament, but the Bruins (4-3) took part in a two-game event earlier this month and will squeeze in a game during the break by hosting an Australian club team at 3 p.m. Saturday, with a junior varsity game at 1 p.m.

The game dovetails nicely into the barnstorming visitors' schedule -- they are going to see the Hawks-Wizards game Saturday night at MCI Center.

"I thought it'd be a great idea for the kids to meet new people, kind of like a friendly game, just to have them play against competition they hadn't seen before," Forest Park Coach Brion Dunlap said.

Free Throws

In the Riverdale Baptist Holiday Classic, the Woodbridge boys open with Post top 20 team Friendly. In this tournament last year, the Vikings knocked off Laurinburg (N.C.), which at the time was ranked in the USA Today Top 20. . . .

In the Cave Spring Holiday Hoopla at the Salem Civic Center, Osbourn opens against defending Virginia AAA state champion Cave Spring, which lost four starters off last year's team, including Duke freshman J.J. Redick. Gar-Field is in the tournament for the fifth straight year. . . .

Two of the top teams in Northern Virginia -- Potomac and Herndon -- are in opposite brackets of the Denbigh Holiday Classic in Newport News. Potomac junior forward Jason Flagler, who missed two games last week while vacationing with his family, is expected to play in the event.

"I think our starting five, six, seven people can compete with anyone. They're pumped up," the Cougars' coach said of the single-A school playing larger ones.