Some of the area's top high school girls' basketball players will be participating this week in the Future Stars Christmas Classic, a tournament which is marking its 15th year at West Chester University.

The tourney was established to raise funds for the university's women's team.

The field for the three-day event, which opens Thursday, includes three Chester County teams, Downingtown East, Villa Maria Academy and Conestoga. The other teams in the field are Notre Dame Academy, Upper Dublin, Cardinal Dougherty, Emmaus and Central.

The Irish are scheduled to meet Dougherty in the tourney's opening game at 3 p.m. [See box for tourney schedule.]

The tournament began when former Immaculata coach Cathy Rush agreed to have her Future Stars Camps program sponsor the event.

"It was our contribution to the women's program," said Rush, a graduate of West Chester. "The NCAA doesn't allow college basketball teams to sponsor tournaments for high school teams."

Rush said she didn't expect the tourney to be still running strong after 15 years, but its popularity as a showcase for the girls has kept it going.

"We get calls in the spring from schools wanting to be in the tourney," Rush said.

State Farm Insurance has been added as a sponsor this year, according to WCU women's coach Deirdre Kane.

"The tourney's been a great boost for our program," she said.

Downingtown East, Villa Maria and Conestoga have all appeared in the tourney numerous times over the years.

"We've been there 10 or 12 years," said coach Bob Schnure, whose Downingtown East team is the reigning Ches-Mont League National Conference champion. "It's always been a challenging tournament. What's really nice about it is that it provides three games [for each team], and it's got some local teams."

The Cougars boast one of the area's top point guards in junior Megan Kerrigan. They also have Kristen Blye inside. The two combined for 25 points in East's 48-35 win over the Hurricanes earlier this year.

The tourney is a favorite of Conestoga coach John Jones, too.

"It's a great tourney," said Jones whose Pioneers finished runner-up to defending District 1 Class AAAA champion Upper Dublin last year. "We've got a strong team returning so this will be a good early test for us."

Conestoga, which improved to 5-0 with its 44-35 win Tuesday over Lower Merion, tackles District 1 power Emmaus in its tourney opener at 7:30 p.m.

The Pioneers are led by 6-feet-3 Chelsea Shine and 6-0 Kristen Johnsen, both seniors. Shine averages 14 points a game while Johnsen is at 12 a game.

Villa Maria, which bounced back from its loss to the Cougars to run its record to 3-1 by defeating St. Basil Academy, 52-50 on Tuesday, opens the holiday tourney against District 12 champion Central at 4:30 p.m.

The Hurricanes have a pair of six-footers in junior Erin Mann and senior Allie Mongan to go along with 5-11 forward Alex Martin.