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For prep talents trying to make it to the next level, high school basketball is an important stepping stone, but it isn’t the only path to the top. The presence of AAU leagues has taken firm hold all over the country, spreading at a rate high enough to render high school basketball secondary to the AAU scene in the eyes of many college scouts.

While that growth fosters a more competitive club basketball landscape, it can also feed into a youth sports culture that keeps kids thinking only about winning games just as it keeps coaches and tournament organizers thinking about the mounting dollar signs that coincide with rising participation.

Kids are flocking to AAU sports at increasingly younger ages these days, a trend that has seen the popularity of expensive travel tournaments grow every summer. Still, there are some AAU organizations out there that aren’t as caught up in national exposure as they are in simply teaching kids about life and basketball.

One such organization is NOVA 94 Feet, Inc., a nonprofit company that runs an AAU basketball program in Reston. After retiring from his law practice last year, Herndon resident Darren Goldberg founded NOVA 94 Feet with the intention of giving kids a fresh opportunity to compete at higher levels of basketball. He wanted to add another outlet to the wealth of reputable AAU organizations around Northern Virginia, ensuring that families from the Fairfax area don’t have to put up with the kind of corrupt financial practices sometimes seen with AAU teams in other parts of the country.

“I’m really enjoying the idea of building this and doing it what I consider the right way, which is bringing more of a family-oriented atmosphere,” said Goldberg, who has experience coaching youth baseball, soccer and basketball in the Reston area. “We’re not looking to make money off this. The whole idea is to get kids to really enjoy playing basketball. I think basketball’s just the greatest game.”

The organization started with three teams--fourth, fifth and sixth grade boys teams-- before adding an eighth grade boys squad last March. Each team consisted of about 10-12 players that played from March through June in tournaments mostly around the D.C. metro area, including Loudoun County, Mount Vernon, Prince George County and Baltimore. One long-distance trip was taken by the fourth grade team, which traveled to Hampton, Va., to take part in a national AAU tournament that featured teams from up and down the East Coast.

NOVA 94 Feet also engages in charitable outreach. Two of its teams conducted a bake sale and put together packages for the Alternative House last year, and plans are underway to put on an event for the Special Olympics this year.

The successful inaugural season has all the kids back for a second year that should prove considerably busier than the first. Goldberg and company are adding a third grade boys team, a ninth grade boys team and a third/fourth grade girls team, in addition to two more boys teams for fourth and fifth grades.

“Last year no one really knew who we were,” said Goldberg, whose son, Jeremy, will try out for the seventh grade team this year. “It’s different now. I have a lot more people looking at my website. Last year when I made my website [www.nova94feet.com] you couldn’t even find it on Google. You searched AAU basketball in Northern Virginia and it didn’t even come up.”

Tryout dates and locations vary depending on the team, but they begin next Sunday and will run throughout the rest of the month before the season begins in March. Tryouts are open, and returning players are not guaranteed roster spots.

“I always tell my kids, ‘If 10 Lebron James come up, you guys are in trouble,’” Goldberg said. “We don’t expect that to happen, but we want kids to feel like they have to earn their spot.”

Until then, clinics run every Sunday at Reston YMCA from 5:00 - 6:30 p.m. Goldberg runs the clinics alongside other coaches, all of whom have extensive experience coaching youth basketball in the area.

While they expect a certain level of commitment to basketball, NOVA 94 Feet coaches also encourage their players to embrace other sports. Many of the kids come in with experience playing lacrosse, soccer, football or baseball, something that coaches believe only adds to the organization’s emphasis on a well-rounded childhood.

“I think soccer actually feeds really well into basketball,” said Mike Franchak, the fourth grade boys coach who roomed with Goldberg when they attended Duke 20-plus years ago. “Whether it’s foot skills and vision or in basketball ball-handling and vision, you want [the kids] to be able to think quickly, to fake the defender in one direction and then go the other way. We encourage them to draw the defense to them and then find a teammate. We want to cheer the assists and cheer the group playmaking. A lot of the kids playing at the house level can go one-on-five, and that won’t teach anybody anything. If they start to play better as a team, you see kind of a quantum leap as they use the whole floor.”

The first tryout is set for the third/fourth grade girls team next Sunday from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. at the Reston YMCA Teen Center.

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com