O'Connell, off its finest start in the 20 years of the school, is serving notice that this time it plans to play a different role in the 18th annual holiday tournament that bears its name.

Usually the gracious hosts, fighting for seventh place most of the time, the Knights (6-1) finally have enough firepower to match baskets with the out-of-town visitors as well as the invited area teams."

O'Connell plays Archbishop Stepinac (3-5) of New York in a first-round game at 9:15 tonight.

In the other opening contests, Mackin (6-0) meets Philadelphia's Cardinal O'Hara (7-2) at 4, Mckinley (2-2) plays Archbishop Malloy (4-4) of New York at 5:45 and Carroll (4-2) faces Philadelphia's Father Judge (9-2) at 7:30.

One big reason for O'Connell's optimism is 6-foot-7, 195-pound center Kevin Darmody. The senior is the area's leading scorer with a 31.2 average (Gar-Field took advantage of his absence to hand the Knights' their only loss, 67-58).

An excellent shooter with good moves around the basket, Darmody has decided to end the recruiting pressures early by signing today with the University of South Carolina.

"He was starting to feel the pressure and he came to me and told me he wanted to sign right away," said O'Connell Coach John Miller. (He knew just about where he wanted to go. It was between Villanova, Virginia and South Carolina. I think he made a good choice."

Miller said Darmody, the school's all-time leading scorer (1,149) and rebounder (599) is over a fever that sidelined him during Friday's loss and is 100 percent for tonight.

"I'm very optimistic about this team. O'Connell has only reached the finals once and finished above .500 twice since it was 20-10 in 1963," Miller said. "We've got a pretty big team to take some of the burden off Kevin."

Miller has had excellent efforts from the other starters, 6-5 George Doyle, 6-4 Joe Corish and Ed Leonard and 6-3 Tom Cramp. Bob Zillian, 6-6, is the top reserve.

"We've got some good shooting guards on the bench, too, so we can go big or small," said Miller, in his third year at O'Connell. "We're playing real well so far. Even without Kevin against Gar-Field, the other guys did a great job. We just missed our foul shots near the end."

In one of the other 40 holiday tournaments scheduled this week, underfeated Mount Vernon (6-0) sends its running and shooting gang against disciplined St. Albans (3-1) in a first-round game of the Mount Vernon Invitational at 9 o'clock tonight. Gonzaga (4-0) faces Madison (1-3) at 7.

In the other two first-round games Thursday night, West Springfield (2-3) meets Coolidge (4-1) at 7 and Hayfield (3-2) faces Fairfax (1-4) at 9.

Mount Vernon, the area's highest scoring high school and college team, is averaging 95.6 points per game. Four starters, led by Junior Brown (20.5) points, are averaging in double figures for the Majors.

In the Raider Classic at Stuart, Oakton (1-4) plays H. D. Woodson (1-0) at 7 and Good Counsel (4-0) at 9 in the first round tonight.

Holy Cross (6-0) puts its 34-game winning string on the line at 8 o'clock tonight when it meets Seneca Valley (2-3) in the semifinals of the IAABO Girls Tournament at Largo. Holy Names (6-0) plays St. Anthony's (8-1) in the other semifinal at 6:30.

In the top tournament Thursday, De Matha (6-0), top-ranked nationally Beaver Falls (7-0) at 7 in the opening round of the Johnstown (Pa.) Tournament.

Altoona (8-1) faces Overbrook (10-0) of Philadelphia, ranked ninth nationally, in the other first-round game. The winners will meet for the title Friday at 9.

"That'll be one of great tournament," said De Matha Coach Morgan Wootten. "Overbrook is supposed to be supper team and Altoona has a 6-11 and 6-9 starting." Wootten is relieved that his 6-6, 240-pound enforcer, Percy White, has recovered from a pulled muscle.

"Percy is ready to play," said Wootten. "He just has to build up his stamina now. With (Derek) Whittenburg still out (broken toe) for the next three weeks, it's good to have White back."

Bowie (6-0) takes on rugges Blair (1-3) in a opening-round game of the Blair Tournament Thursday at 9. Suitland (2-1) plays Springbrook (3-2) at 7.