Marie Bolton was in eighth grade when she started working for the Loudoun County High girls basketball team, handing out water bottles and fetching basketballs as one of the team's managers.

It was not a coincidence Bolton held that position. The team's coach, Bob Pingley, wanted Bolton to serve as a sort of understudy to the varsity team, to better prepare her for when she joined the school and the basketball program as a freshman.

The plan worked, and Bolton, now a senior--along with five other key Loudoun County players who have served as managers for Pingley--has led the Raiders to the semifinals of the Virginia AA tournament. Loudoun County will play Turner Ashby at 7 tonight, and the winner will face the Heritage-Virginia winner in the title game Saturday at 2:30 p.m. George Mason High will play Prince Edward in the Virginia A semifinal, with the winner advancing to meet the Northwood-Shawsville winner in the championship at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Loudoun County (25-2) qualified for the state tournament by advancing to the region final, in which it fell to Turner Ashby, 44-28. The Raiders never have advanced this far in the playoffs.

"Being around, it helped a lot," said Bolton, the team's leading scorer, of her experience as a manager. "I knew what to expect when I got into my freshman year. It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, what are the drills going to be like? What are practices going to be like?' I knew what kind of drills we were doing, what kind of work we did."

Pingley had coached Bolton on a Loudoun County youth select team during her seventh grade year, and, recognizing her talent, thought making her a manager would be a good way to expose her to his program.

The Raiders employ a swirling defense that consists of a lot of traps and presses. All three guards--Bolton, 5-foot-4 junior Stacy James and 5-5 junior Tara Kidwell--average more than four steals per game.

James, Kidwell and junior Kim Grimes--the team's top reserve--all served as managers, as did sophomore Katie Baldwin and freshman Summer Forsythe when they were at Simpson Middle School, which feeds students into Loudoun County.

"When the varsity girls were getting water or resting, [Pingley] would help us out and show us things," Kidwell said. "He would show us how to shoot."

"It's not really to groom them or anything," said Pingley, in his seventh year as coach. "It's just a chance to get them exposed to it. Any kid that's interested, that's got some potential. . . . We don't have any middle school programs, so it gives them a chance to get exposed to it."

According to the players, serving as manager has helped them grow closer as a group. Most of the players also played together on recreational teams in middle school.

"We've played together for like five years, all of us, starting in middle school," James said. "We can pretty much predict the other person's move. If they're going to make a certain cut we know that and can throw the ball that way."

"We're all really good friends," Bolton said. "We're probably like sisters, because we've been spending so much time together since we were little."

CAPTION: Marie Bolton is one of six ex-team managers playing for Loudoun County, now in Virginia AA semifinals.