Cedar Creek High School senior Michelina Hesse celebrated her 18th birthday over winter break.
She rang in the new year with her friends. She played in yet another holiday basketball tournament, just as she's done every year.
However, this winter break was unlike any Hesse had in the past. Hesse and her Cedar Creek girls basketball teammates were among four local teams that spent part of their time off from school at Walt Disney World.
Cedar Creek, the Ocean City girls and Egg Harbor Township boys and girls teams competed in the KSA Holiday Basketball Tournament at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., from Dec. 27 to Jan. 1.
"It was so different than what I'm used to," Hesse said last week. "It was cool to spend (my birthday) there and to see the ball drop in Disney."
Cedar Creek (5-2) and Ocean City (7-1) are the area's top girls basketball teams. Ocean City is ranked No. 4 in The Press Elite 11 and Cedar Creek is No. 6.
At the Florida event, nearly 90 boys and girls teams were divided into eight-team brackets based on their level of competitiveness. All of the 1,300-plus players stayed at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort.
Cedar Creek reached the championship of the Girls Pink bracket. The Pirates defeated Knott County, Ky., and Yosemite, Calif., before losing to fellow New Jersey school Monsignor Donovan in the final.
"It was really cool to see the different levels of competition and how people from other parts of the country play," Hesse said.
The EHT boys went 2-1 in the Green bracket while the girls went 0-3 in the Purple bracket.
Basketball brought all the teenagers together. But players had plenty of time to enjoy Disney World, too.
At lunchtime, the cafeteria at All Star Sports looked like that of any high school. Athletes bounced from table to table, making friends with players from as far away as Alaska.
"That (was) the funnest part," Pirates senior Kristine Miller said. "We'd just go up to random tables and ask people where they're from, try to get them to follow us on Instagram," a popular photo-sharing social networking application for the iPhone.
Miller's favorite Disney World attraction was Dinoland at the Animal Kingdom Park. Hesse loved the fireworks display at Magic Kingdom.
Ocean City, which went 2-1 in the Girls Red bracket, had nearly two whole days off after an 8 a.m. game Dec. 29. The Red Raiders used that free time to visit the parks, ride roller coasters and check out the attractions.
"They had a great time," Ocean City coach Paul Baruffi said. "(KSA) had a lot of events set up for them. The games aren't overwhelming. A lot of times we were just able to let them go do what they wanted."
KSA Events hosts yearly national tournaments in Anaheim, Calif., Orlando and Washington in baseball, basketball, field hockey, football, lacrosse, softball, volleyball and wrestling. Regardless of the location, tournament organizers plan plenty of social events to enable the players to meet and interact.
On New Year's Eve, the tournament's final night, KSA hosted a banquet and party. The players entered 2013 with their teammates and new friends.
"They had a DJ playing outside with about 1,000 kids out there dancing. It was cool," Cedar Creek coach Francine Raph said.
It takes a lengthy planning process to take 15 high school students on a trip like that.
Cedar Creek began fundraising two years ago, when the Pirates were a group of freshmen and sophomores who hadn't even played a varsity game yet. Raph said the Pirates wound up raising nearly 80 percent of their expenses.
Baruffi heard about the KSA Tournament years ago through other coaches. He figured this was a good year to do it. He met with Ocean City's current seniors and the parents of other returning players last March.
"I wasn't sure they'd want to do it, but they all really wanted to," Baruffi said. "Once I saw that, we moved ahead with (the planning)."
Players flew back home New Year's Day and returned to school the following day. They had plenty of stories to share with their classmates about what they did over winter break.
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