FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. - Last week's scorching heat couldn't keep 11 teens off the outdoor basketball courts at Murphy Field House to prepare for the best competition the country has to offer.

The Meade Youth Basketball Association Wildcats U16 team polished their game before heading down to the Amateur Athletic Union Basketball National Championships in Orlando, Fla. The tournament, which began Monday and runs through Saturday, features the country's top 60 AAU boys basketball teams going head-to-head for the title of national champions.

The national competition is the culmination of a five-month season of tournaments. Young players join the AAU teams to extend their basketball seasons beyond the high school competition, which ends in March. In addition to more time on the court, players go up against tougher competition at the AAU tournaments.

"In AAU, you take the best kids out of your neighborhood or county and put teams together and you travel across the country playing each other," coach Rodney Ramsey said.

During the season, the team traveled throughout the country playing in tournaments, competing against some of the best players in their age group. The coaching staff picks the tournaments the team attends.

Ramsey said his staff chooses tournaments that challenge the team -- not ones the players will dominate.

When deciding on tournaments to attend, Ramsey also looks at the possibility of players being exposed to college basketball scouts. Because all of the players on the U16 team will be entering 11th grade, coaches focus on getting their players to the next level of competition.

"The goal is for each player to get a college scholarship in Division III, II or I," Ramsey said.

To reach this goal, Ramsey pushes his players just as hard off the court as he does when they're on the hardwood floors.

"One of the main things we push is education," Ramsey said. "All the kids on my team are honor-roll kids. They have to maintain a GPA of 3.0 higher to play."

The Fort Meade players match their classroom success with excellence on the court. This year, the squad of 11 players brought home the Division II U16 state championship title. Ramsey attributes his team's success to speed and a disciplined approach to defense.

"We're a very quick team, a very fast team," he said. "The core of our team, the thing that really makes us click, is defense. We play excellent defenses, man-to-man defense, zone defense. We do a lot of traps."

The players' talent has carried the team to more than one national championship tournament this season. They entered this week's AAU tournament riding the momentum of a successful United States Basketball Association National Championship tournament held July 11 to 16 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where they placed second. Players ran through the competition and held a 4-0 record going into the championship game against the Rockingham Wildcats.

The North Carolina team defeated Meade 83-64 in the championship. Despite the tough loss, player Aaron Lewis-Cenales said the team should gain lessons from the defeat that can help them in their upcoming tournament.

"We need to play as a team more," he said. "When we get down we need to keep our heads up."

Ramsey said the USBA tournament was a "great warm-up" for the competition the team will face in the AAU National Championships.

"They got a taste of it by getting that close to the championship," he said. "They're hungry to do better."

The coach is confident his team will be calm under the pressure of the AAU National Championships. Many players are overwhelmed when they arrive at the championships and see so many competitive teams, Ramsey said. However, the Wildcats' core players are not strangers to the event and have been playing together for six years.

"They've been doing these tournaments for about six years, so they understand what we're getting into and the challenge ahead," Ramsey said.

In the past, the veterans have helped the newer players adapt and get comfortable with the daunting task of defeating the top teams in the country, Ramsey said.

With the Maryland state champion title and victories in numerous tournaments all season, Ramsey said his team is ready for the national championships, both physically and mentally.

"Each game is an important game. Each game is a championship game," he said. "They understand what it takes to win."

In order to bring home the championship trophy, the team will have to win a total of eight games over six days. Aaron said players are looking to take the success at the USBA national championships one step further this week.

"We're excited big time," he said. "We're trying to finish first this time."

Aaron and the team already have plans if they do win in Orlando.

"I'm going to Disney World," Aaron said "I always wanted to say that."