They've been within sniffing distance of the crowning achievement several times in the past. They've enjoyed more success nationally than many teams ever will.
And the members of the Baltimore Bullets 14- and 15-and-under basketball teams hope to improve on their program's tradition in this year's Amateur Athletic Union national championships.
The five-time champion 15-and-under squad, coached by Dunbar assistant Bucky Lee, left yesterday for the seven-day competition in Kingsport, Tenn., which begins today.
"It's going to take seven to nine games to win it all, but just getting to the final four would be like winning it all for us," said Lee, who coached Dunbar's junior varsity to a 13-0 record last season.
Lee has watched his program place seventh nationally on three occasions. His Bullets were 10th last year. But unlike in the past, when his team's height was comparable to others, this year, Lee said, "Speed is our greatest asset: Gutting it out with little height -- that's our goal."
If Lee's team comes anywhere near reaching its target, it will remain in contention until July 17 -- the day coach Tom Dean's four-time state champion under-14 squad begins its quest to improve on its highest performance: A third-place finish in the under-11 nationals four years ago.
"This team may not be our most talented, but it's got more character than we've had in four years," said Dean, whose squad finished 11th at the 12-and-under level and seventh last year.
Each team will compete in a four- to five-team pool, with the top two placers advancing to an approximate 32-team bracket.
The Bullets' state champion under-13 squad had a disappointing return from its June 26-July 3 nationals in Memphis, Tenn., after failing to advance from its pool.
Eight players are on the 15-and-under squad, led by 6-foot-4 Dunbar sophomore Tom Polly, who averages 18 points and 11 rebounds. Among the team's best athletes, Polly was a second-team, All-City linebacker for the Poets' 9-1 football team last fall.
Polly shares the low-post in the Bullets' 1-2-2 offense with Towson Catholic's 6-3 sophomore Anthony Lee, who contributes points and seven boards an outing.
Another Dunbar sophomore, 6-1 small forward Jarmal Holt, is the team's best jumper and averages 13 points, six rebounds and three steals.
The squad boasts two sophomores from Southern in 6-0 point guard Marlon Wise and 5-10 Milton Tillman.
A balanced contributor averaging nine points, four assists and three steals, Wise once had nine assists and six steals in an overtime victory.
Tillman is among the team's swiftest and best defenders, averaging seven points and three each in steals and assists.
Despite the under-15 team's talent, only 6-3 Poly sophomore Thomas Bradley (eight points, six rebounds a game) played varsity ball as a freshman. The other players are guard Darrell Hairrston (Herring Run Middle) and Carver sophomore Antwan Bennett, who can play any position.
"All of them will do very well at their high schools this year," Bucky Lee said.
The 14-and-under squad has drawn from a wider area, with reserve players in Calvert Hall sophomore Darrell Walker (6-2 1/2 ), Towson freshman Frank Roblin, Lake Clifton freshman Charles Beaufort, Severna Park freshman Todd Poorman (6-0) and Centennial freshman Devin Price.
The top three players on the under-14 squad -- 5-8 guard Dennard Melton, 6-1 swingman Christopher Dean and 6-4 center John Williams -- are as gifted in the classroom as they are on the court. Each is an A student.
Melton, a Glen Burnie resident, is an eighth-grader at Severn School who was voted first-team All-American in last year's nationals. Averaging 14 points, two steals and nine assists, Melton "basically runs the team. He's the youngest kid on the team, but he does whatever we need done," said Tom Dean, who is assisted by Rob Roblin.
Of the squad's 10 players, Christopher Dean, a 230-pounder, is "one of our most improved," his father, Tom, said. Entering his freshman season at either Dunbar or Calvert Hall, Dean is the best three-point shooter and averages 12 points.
Williams, who will be a freshman at Broadneck, averages 12 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks and three steals. The other starters are 6-2 Antonio Tripp, whose strong suit is his seven boards per game, and 5-7 speedster Kim Washington, an eighth-grader at Chinquapin Middle.