Craig Sauers has no idea what he's going to do next summer. For each of the past seven summers, he just looked at the Howard County Heat basketball schedule and determined his summer travel plans with Eric Wolven, Jimmy McQuilkin, Brandon Boy and Jason Burns, other county residents who have been on the team since it was formed.
"For me, doing that was always the start of summer, and then we'd call each other and talk about all of the cool places we'd get to go to," Sauers said. "The summer was about pretty much playing basketball and then going to tournaments every weekend to play basketball, which are like a bunch of vacations -- how cool is that?"
Sauers -- now a rising senior at Atholton -- never thought his days on the Heat would end. He still has the orange jersey he wore as a sixth-grader and T-shirts representing basketball tournaments throughout the country.
The original five players on the team, which is coached by Tom Wolven, Eric's father, have played more than 400 games together. When they walked off the court at the Run 'n' Shoot Athletic Center in District Heights Friday, they knew they would likely never play on the same team together again.
They lost in the first round of the American Youth Basketball Tour national tournament to the St. Patrick's (Mich.) Celtics, 37-31.
"I never thought it would end this way, and I don't think any of us did," Sauers said. "Our goal was to go in there and win the national championship, and then we'd talk about it whenever we saw each other. I think not winning it hurts because we didn't win the last game we played, and now that summer's going to be over, everyone is going to get ready to play for their high school teams."
Playing for the Heat has unified seniors from four schools: Atholton's Matt Winger, Andrew Zavage, McQuilkin and Sauers; Mount Hebron's Wolven; Centennial's Drew Seker; and Mount St. Joseph's Burns.
"We've all become great friends, but now the next time we play basketball, we will all be trying to win the county title for our high school team," Boy said. "It's going to be really competitive out there, and each of us is going to want to win."
Winning is something the Heat experienced regularly this summer. The team was undefeated at an AYBT regional tournament in Bowie, won an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Harrisburg, Pa., and finished second in an AAU tournament in Lebanon Valley, Pa.
"We don't have that one big superstar a lot of AAU teams have, but the reason why we've been as successful as we've been is because everyone fills a role our team needs," Tom Wolven said. "We don't have five players who start. We have a rotation that allows us to play to our strengths and go after the other team's weaknesses."
The Heat entered the AYBT national tournament with high expectations after winning the event last year in State College, Pa.
They finished 6-1 in pool play. But against St. Patrick's in the first round of the single-elimination tournament, they went cold from the field, and the Celtics were able to score against what had been a stifling defense.
"We're by no means a bad team, but we played like one" Friday, Zavage said. "We just didn't play the way we know we can, and we played poor defensively, and we just screwed up. It wasn't like we were under any pressure because we knew this was a tournament we could win because we won it last year, but we didn't get it done. It's hard to explain."
Despite the final game, the good memories outnumber the negative ones. Though the team likely will never play in another organized game, it does not mean they are breaking up, Sauers said. They'll still spend summer nights socializing at the Boys' beach house on the Chesapeake Bay, reminiscing and playing cards well into the night. They will continue to work out together in hopes that their basketball skills will cover at least some of their college educations.
"I think a big reason why we had a lot of success was because we were friends first and we still are, even though some of us go to different schools," Sauers said. "We had great chemistry, and we knew each other so well on the court, and I don't think it's going to hit me that it's over for a while. But then next summer I'll look in my closet and see our navy jersey hanging there and wonder: What am I going to do now?"