Its lip-biting time for athletes and parents at Maccabi tryouts

At the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, excited kids are milling around with numbers pinned on their backs waiting for their sports to begin.

The noise level at the check-in table outside the gym is at a steady pitch; it will remain that way throughout the afternoon.

Inside the gym, girls' volleyball is under way at one end, while about 25 boys cluster around their basketball coaches at the other end. The boys listen intently to the coaches while wearing expressions that seem to say, "I'm cool."

One of the coaches, Craig Salgado, tells the boys, "We're going to spend a lot of time together; we're going to get to know each other real well."

The other coach, Nate Levine, adds, "We expect your attitude and your effort to be off the charts."

Anxious parents line up against the wall looking more nervous than their sons do. One mother bites her nails. Another sighs. Most fathers stare intently at the court, not speaking to one another.

Tryouts for the 20th annual JCC Maccabi Youth Games are under way on this sunny March day. A total of 140 kids — ages 13 to 16 — are competing to win spots in 15 different sports, including track and field, baseball, basketball, golf and tennis.

The games are held every summer in four or five locations in North America, drawing some 6,000 athletes ages 13 to 16 from the United States and Canada as well as from countries such as Israel, Mexico, Australia and Britain.

Last year the athletes on the San Francisco-area team brought back 50 medals from Tucson, Ariz., and Staten Island, N.Y.

This year each kid hopes to be one of the 120 selected to travel to the games in either Atlanta or Miami. An initial round of tryouts with 40 kids took place last month in Marin.

So here in Palo Alto the atmosphere is tense. During the basketball tryouts for the 13- and 14-year-old boys, Ricki Rouse of Burlingame sits ramrod straight, looking intently at her son, Jake, out on the court.

"I hate it," Rouse says. "I'm hopeful for him, but it's hard."

Another parent, when asked if his son would make the team, responds, "Oh, yeah. He'd better."

Across the street at Gunn High School, the girls' soccer tryouts are under way. Compared with the 50 or so trying out for boys' basketball, only five girls pass the ball up and down the field. Up to 11 girls could make the team.

This is 14-year-old Jessica Daniels' first year. She is an eighth-grader from San Rafael.

"I'm here because I'd seen the videos," she says, referring to tapes of previous games. "Those kids were having so much fun. I also like the idea of being with all Jewish kids."

Most of the kids participating couldn't agree more.

"It's cool seeing groups of Jewish people come together as a whole," 16-year-old Palo Alto resident, Michael Mann-Stock, says, speaking from somewhere inside his sweatshirt hood. This is his third year at tryouts.

Earlier in a phone interview, San Francisco Bay Area program director, Sherri Smith, underscored Mann-Stock's point.

"Some of these kids only have a handful of Jewish kids in their schools," said Smith. "We've even had kids go through a bar or bat mitzvah afterwards who hadn't been planning to before the games."

Every year, she said, the Maccabi Youth Games strive to instill Jewish values through an athletic context.

Last year in Tucson, for example, athletes from the Bay Area team donated shoes they'd collected to a nearby American Indian reservation.

This year, those going to Miami will take underprivileged kids to the zoo and give them baseball caps from Bay Area teams.

But Jewish values and Jewish friends aside, these kids are here to play.

Danielle Bealick, a ninth-grader from Layfayette, has played for three years as a basketball guard. Her dimples become apparent when she speaks about her trip to Tucson.

"Kansas City was the team to beat, and we beat them in overtime," she says.

The commitment of the coaches appears to match the commitment of the kids. Larry Becker of Sunnyvale has coached swimming since 1997. What keeps him coming back is "the Jewish affiliation," he says, "and that it's something outside of work to keep me sane." Becker works as a software consultant.

Peter Pollat, assistant coach at San Francisco's Riordan High School, has coached boys' basketball at the Maccabi Youth Games for 12 years. His team at Riordan just won the Northern California Division III Championship.

"We can't let Jewish kids who are athletic drift away from Judaism," he says. "I'll even call coaches and referees and ask them, 'Do you know of any Jewish kids?'"

That's exactly what happened to Benji Friend, Sam Kline and Andrew Rubenstein. The three boys play baseball at Urban High School in San Francisco.

"I got a call from a coach who'd found us in the newspapers," says Kline with a laugh.

The boys were already successful players at their high schools; why try out for the Maccabi Youth Games?

"Jews don't get credit for being athletic," replies Kline. "We are the next generation's athletes."

Says Rubenstein, "We want to strengthen our ties to the Jewish community."

Friend adds, "It's like we're next to be the Jewish people's leaders."