The roster includes a sick player, one injured and mostly others unaccustomed to the pressure of a national tournament.

The team has not practiced together in three months.

But, ready or not, the Maryland Magic -- a girls basketball team dominated by players from Mount Hebron and Hammond high schools -- headed to Charleston, W.Va., this weekend to compete in the 15-and-under division of the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics national tournament.

"I don't think we've faced competition like this before. It's kind of new for all of us," said Kristen Moraz, a forward who attends Hammond.

"It seems like nothing is really working for us. But I think if we play well together, we have a chance."

As the Magic played its first game yesterday on the tournament's opening day, the team had more obstacles to overcome than opponents.

Let's begin with the absentee factor. The Magic has had numerous players missing in action since winning the state AAU 15-and-under tournament three months ago.

Nearly all of the team's 11 players have attended one or more summer basketball camps, which typically last a week. Many players have taken vacations. Thus, while each player has made a majority of the team's twice-a-week practices during the past two months, none of the workouts has included the full squad.

Then there's the injury factor. Moraz underwent arthroscopic knee surgery six weeks agoand started playing again three weeks ago. She is still feeling painas she works her way into shape.

Then there's the sickness factor. Emily Yanero, a sophomore guard at Mount Hebron who played superblyduring the Magic's drive to the state championship, was stricken with an illness two weeks ago. After losing seven pounds in a week, she could not make the trip to Charleston.

On top of all that, the Magic wasn't exactly riding a wave of momentum going into the nationals.Last week in the Maryland State Games, the team competed for the first time since qualifying for the nationals in April. The Magic won two games -- one by forfeit -- and lost games to the Anne Arundel Wave (50-44) and Montgomery Classic (58-50).

"We had some individuals play well, but we didn't play well as a team," said Al Moraz, Magic head coach and an assistant girls basketball coach at Hammond.

"But it was the first time we had nine girls together since we won the state tournament. We haven't been together very often. It's been a little frustrating."

Moraz called a final practice Tuesday night at Hammond High. Six girls made it. Two of the missing players, 6-foot forward Kris Bryant and 5-2 guard Erica McCauley, both juniors at Hebron,were attending the Stars International camp at Delaware Valley College, Pa. After the camp's conclusion, they flew to Charleston to rejoin the Magic.

Finally, there's the depth and inexperience factors. With Yanero down, the Magic lacks an outside shooting threat the teamcan't afford to lose. And McCauley is the only player with national AAU tournament experience. She was the lone Howard County player on aBaltimore team that finished fourth in the 13-and-under nationals two years ago.

This year's tournament includes 44 teams, which will play in a round-robin format. Each team is guaranteed at least three games. The championship game will be played Saturday.

Except for 6-2 forward Tesha Nixon of Friendly High (Prince George's County) -- Moraz added her, thanks to a rule allowing coaches to pick up one to three players from outside a team's local area for the nationals -- the Magic consists of Hebron and Hammond players.

Along with McCauley and Bryant, junior 5-9 forward Sandra Benson and junior 5-7 forwardTierney Clark played for Hebron's state championship team last season.

Hammond, which erased a 1-21 season two years ago to go 11-11 as the county's most improved team last season, contributes four of its starters to the Magic: sophomore 5-5 guard Kacey Williams, sophomore 5-9 forward Sonia Keiner, junior 5-4 guard Jennifer Garlick and Moraz, a 5-10 junior. Sophomore 5-9 forward Amy Hanson also attends Hammond.

"We're going to need balanced scoring, we're going to need someone to step forward and pick up the slack for Emily, and we're going to have to play excellent defense," Coach Moraz said. "These girls are all skilled, and they've blended real well."

"We lost that edge we had when we were playing up through April," cautioned Jim McCauley, an assistant coach.

Indeed, the Magic players were busy with basketball from November through April, counting the high school season. After winning the state AAU tournament, Moraz gave the team a month off before resuming practices two months ago.

"We were just gladto get to the (Maryland) State Games last week," McCauley added.

"We didn't go down there to win it. We wanted to get back some of thecontinuity the team had before. But if we play the way we did at theState Games, it will be a three-game trip and we'll be coming home. It (the nationals) can be a humbling experience."

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