This year more than any in recent memory, Potomac boys' basketball coach Kendall Hayes is having to, well, coach. It's not like in other years he just rolled the ball out and watched. But this season's edition of one of the state's most successful programs requires a firmer guiding hand than most others.

"It's certainly the most inexperienced team we've had in a while," Hayes said. "The last two years we just had so many returning guys out there on the court that I think at times you take for granted what the guys know. We have to go over things more often this year than we have in the past, but it's kind of new and exciting just having so many fresh faces."

One face Hayes has seen for about 18 years now is that of son Eric, an All-Met senior point guard who has signed with Maryland. He averaged 18.9 points, 6.4 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks last season; he also shot 85 percent from the foul line and sank 56 three-pointers.

"Having Eric out there is certainly a comfort for the coaching staff as well as the other four on the floor because there's not going to be a situation that comes up that he hasn't seen before," said Hayes, who is considering stepping down after this season to closely follow his son's college career.

Only two other seniors are in the current top seven -- guard Harry Williams and forward Javon Brunson, bit players last season.

Junior guards Deante Steele and T.J. Sampson got extensive minutes last year off the bench and will enable the Panthers to win with defense early. Mount Vernon transfer Josh Asare also will help, and 6-foot-6 junior Rian McHenry has shown promise inside.

The Panthers, winners of 52 straight regular season games, have rejoined the Cardinal District after grabbing the regular season title each of the four seasons in the Cedar Run, along with three district tournament titles. They have reached eight of the past 11 state tournaments.

Gar-Field played Potomac tougher than anybody locally last season. For now, though, the Indians have been forced to retool their lineup after senior guard Calvin Booth, the reigning district player of the year, broke his left wrist and dislocated his left forearm in a scrimmage Tuesday against Madison. He is expected to miss about six weeks. Booth had cracked four teeth diving for a loose ball in his team's first scrimmage.

A second-team all-state choice, Booth averaged 16.4 points, 2.7 assists and 2.9 steals and shot 42.9 percent from three-point range (69 made shots) and 80.9 percent from the foul line. He poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in the win over George Washington-Danville in the region semifinals to push the Indians to their third state berth in five years.

The only other returning starter is senior guard Ishmail Sesay, not to be confused with Ishmael Sesay, his cousin and teammate. Big man Leon Barfield moved to Portsmouth.

"It's a team sport, so one of the hard lessons we've got to learn is that when somebody goes down, somebody else has to take advantage of the opportunity," said Indians Coach Andy Gray, whose team was unbeaten in the Cardinal last year. "We have to reconfigure by committee."

As a first-year school with no seniors last season, Freedom was the most inexperienced team in the Cardinal. With all the key players back, Freedom boasts more varsity experience than any district team.

Freedom was not a typical struggling new program last year, given the talent and experience of its players, most notably Florida transfer Cameron Long. The Eagles won 15 games, including nine of their last 10 in the regular season.

The goal this season?

"To win more than 15," Coach Ahmad Dorsett said with a laugh. The team will be tested early, playing Potomac on Friday and at Herndon on Dec. 22.

Junior point guard Long, one of three returning double-figure scorers along with junior guard Jaren Haley and sophomore forward Joseph Velez, will be expected to score more, and improved junior forward Craig Hayes boasts a more polished inside game and shooting touch.

Despite all the returning players, there are only two proven seniors on the roster, guard David Garvin and forward Bruce Black. Even so, the Eagles are seasoned. Dorsett said that during summer and fall leagues, the team played without a volunteer coach on the bench so they could learn to handle game situations on their own.

"They have an understanding of the coach's side by being on the bench by themselves and being players on the court at the same time," Dorsett said. "As long as somebody is [in the stands] to supervise, those kids are smart enough and know what we do and what to expect on the court."

Woodbridge seems poised to greatly improve upon its 5-18 record from last year. The Vikings never really had their full team in 2004-05, with some players lost to injury and others not eligible until late in the season, namely junior point guard Anthony Pettus and senior forward Deont'a Hylton.

Senior Daryl Walker adds defensive pop and junior Aaron Brown is a three-year varsity player. Six-foot-7 John Kelly (broken arm last year) and Ben Weaver (broken ankle) are healthy. Weaver once scored 35 points against Potomac in a junior varsity game. West Springfield transfer Nas Omar adds muscle inside, and there's young talent to be tapped.

"The kids have a renewed confidence and believe they can win some games," said Vikings Coach Chad Anderson, whose team won the Cardinal Run summer league championship.

Things are looking up at Forest Park, or at least Coach Kirby Overman is. The Bruins feature perhaps the most height they've ever had in their short history, including 6-foot-8 sophomore Chris Cooper. That height frees up senior Rashawn Hannah, who has diversified his offensive game after playing somewhat out of position inside last season.

Hannah had 39 points combined in two games in a tournament last week at Douglas Freeman.

"Last year Rashawn was our leading rebounder, and he still might be, but he'll have a lot more competition for it this year," said Overman, whose team boasts more depth than it did in 2004-05.

Returning players Antoine Morton, Caleb Brown and De'Cedric Loveless round out the Bruins' starting five.

As usual, Hylton is in early December limbo, waiting for guys to report from football. Only seven players are currently at practice, including one on crutches. The Bulldogs plan to postpone their early season district games.

Only two established players return -- senior forward Brandon Allen and junior guard Steven Shepp.

"Even the guys coming from the football team will be young," said Hylton Coach Kevin Brown, whose team has qualified for regionals the past two years. "We always have high expectations, and we know most people aren't expecting much out of us."

Senior Eric Hayes is one of the few experienced players on Potomac this season. He has signed to play for Maryland.Gar-Field's Calvin Booth, front, is likely to miss six weeks after suffering wrist and forearm injuries in the preseason.