River Hill Coach Matt Graves sat on the seventh row of metal bleachers at midcourt to watch his boys' basketball team face Richard Montgomery in a Montgomery County Department of Recreation summer league game at Magruder High in Rockville.
What he saw for the most part June 16 wasn't pretty -- sloppy passes, missed defensive assignments and ill-advised shots.
But the Hawks did one thing that pleased their first-year coach: They hustled.
Junior guards Ben Hostetler and Riley Fenlon dove across the court trying to break up passes. Sophomore center Steve Kinigopoulos muscled inside, trying to grab every rebound until the buzzer sounded to punctuate a 54-39 loss.
Graves, like all public school coaches, is barred from instructing his team during the offseason. But he was pleased by the effort of his new team, coached this summer by Kyle Sullivan and Billy Vernon, two starters from last winter's team who graduated earlier this month.
"This is what I want to see: No one out there is giving up, and they are playing hard until the final buzzer," Graves said. "Trust me. This is not how we're going to play during the regular season, I promise you that. What you're seeing right now is street basketball, pick-up basketball where it's up and down the court with no structure."
This is summer league basketball, where winning and losing take a back seat to building team chemistry and individual player development. And in the case of River Hill, it's the season for players to show their new coach what they can offer next winter.
"This is my chance to make a good first impression, and I want to show Coach Graves I can be a starter for him," said Kinigopoulos, who came off the bench for the Hawks' junior varsity team last year. "I want to get experience playing varsity, and if I didn't play summer league, I don't think I could be able to start, and I might not be able to make the team."
Hostetler and sophomore Greg Nowak, the team's only returning starters, will use summer league to adjust to new leadership roles on a team that will be without six of its top seven scorers from last season.
"This gives me a chance to get better, and I know I'm going to be one of the players who needs to step up for us since we don't have that many players coming back," Hostetler said. "It also gives us the experience of playing together before the season."
River Hill's players will have plenty of time to get acquainted this summer. They also began a 10-game season in the Centennial Boosters summer league Tuesday, joined by Howard, Mount Hebron, Atholton and host Centennial.
"What's most important is that the kids are doing something to become better basketball players over the summer," said Atholton Coach Jim Albert.
Defending county champion Long Reach will not play teams from Howard County this summer, instead participating in The Rock summer league at High Point in Beltsville, considered the area's most competitive summer league.
Long Reach will play most of the highly competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference -- including DeMatha, Gonzaga, O'Connell and Bishop McNamara -- in addition to Georgetown Prep and Bullis during its 10-game schedule.
"It's all about using the summer to get better, and what better way than to play the best teams you can," said Long Reach Coach Al Moraz, whose previous coaching stint at High Point helped the Lightning get invited into the league. "We're going to be very young this year, so going up against these teams is going to make us grow up pretty quickly."
Several of the county's girls' teams are also playing in summer leagues.
Glenelg began play last week at the Montgomery County Department of Recreation league with teams from Frederick and Montgomery counties. Mount Hebron is competing in a league at Villa Julie College with several top teams from the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland Conference. It also is participating in a league at Riverdale Baptist with top teams from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and the District.
Atholton, Hammond, Howard and Wilde Lake are playing in league at Howard County Community College that begins July 2.
"You don't think playing 10 summer league games is a lot, but you can tell a lot," Glenelg girls' coach Ciaran Lesikar said. "This is when player's start finding their roles, and I tape our games and go over them so I know what we need to work on. There are a lot of sports being played over the summer, so just being able to get our girls some time to focus solely on basketball is very important."