For years they were on the sidelines: bringing refreshments, washing uniforms, driving carpools, rooting for their sons, husbands, boyfriends.

Now it's their turn.

And why not? That's what Fallon Pearce asked three years ago, watching her soccer-loving sons on the field and getting more and more frustrated that she wasn't out there herself.

"Get a team together," said her husband, insurance agent Rick Pearce, 42, "and I'll coach."

No sooner said than done, with one hitch: the Farmettes, Pearce's team of middle-aged women (she was 39), "got our tails whupped every game" by the already established county open leagues, whose young women "ran us ragged. We didn't have the stamina or strength to compete."

Thus was born the Montgomery Masters Soccer League, specially designed for older women players. Three hundred responded in the first few weeks after Pearce's call for players.

Eight teams formed, including the Hot Flashes, Grapes of Wrath, B Team, Fast Breakers and Shindiggers. Their motto: "Over 30 and still kicking."

Scene: a recent sweltering Saturday morning. It's league champions the Hot Flashes ("with a name like that," says their coach, "you better be good") versus Robbins Commercial Construction (their motto last year was "24 women and only three goals" because, says a player, "we don't score much but we have a great time").

Tummies may be less than taut, waists a bit thick, hair a little gray-streaked, but there's no place for vanity on the field. A tangible sense of spirit and excitement fills the air.

"Put a head on it, Pam," yells one coach. "Go for it, Annie," yells another.

Three-year-olds play on the sidelines, teen-agers scream for goals, husbands stand by, chatting, watching, one keeping statistics while another videotapes plays for later analysis.

The Hot Flashes win, as they have all season ("We're tough," says one, "but we're clean"). Robbins Construction is undaunted ("We don't make a lot of goals," says a player, "but this is a nice team and the only one with a waiting list").

Game over, Ruth Glass, 36, center for the Flashes, mother of two and dean of students at Langley Cooperative School, McLean, reflects: "Women our age never had a chance to discover the joy of team sports."

Recalls Marge Colosi, 42, halfback for Robbins, mother of four and herself a college student: "The boys wouldn't let you play."

Says Glass: "We have to make up for years when women didn't learn the field sense men pick up naturally from their earliest years: how to anticipate the ball, spread out, play positions, give each other room and support, consider options, take your time, learn to sense who will give a fast break, how to pass.

"On the other hand, we don't have to live up to our high-school jock fantasies either. Men have a harder act to follow.

"In the beginning," she says, "we weren't taken seriously. Referees wouldn't call hard balls. The attitude was condescending: 'You ladies can't move too fast.' "

According to Rick Shea, 39, editor of Federal Publications and Masters League coordinator since the teams began, "There's been real evolution. The women practice seriously, have learned the game, improved and get respect now."

On one point all seem to agree: Sportsmanship is a noticeably strong element of women's games. "They care a lot about each other," says referee Steve Haaser. "They spot fouls even before the referee calls them and run to the player, no matter which team, asking if she's hurt."

Says Hot Flashes coach and builder John Hiser, whose wife Gail, 43, is on the team: "They are incredibly supportive of each other. If there's a problem they get together on their own and work it out. I don't think you'd find this on men's teams."

Yet a former coach who did not want his name used claims there is a downside to this caring quality: "The paradox is that they have maternal instincts which make them want to protect the weak, so they don't want poor players benched, yet they also intensely want to win. You can't have it both ways."

He claims this relegates the Masters League to "social exercise," a judgment with which others disagree.

Says Coach Hiser, 45 (who jokes about being particularly qualified to coach women because he grew up with seven sisters): "I take practice and play very seriously and I ask my 'girls' for 100 percent commitment to their best. I play my best players the most, but everyone gets to play too, at least 20 minutes a game.

"But they run the team themselves. They allow me to coach them, which men won't do in the same way, because they tend to think they know everything."

Still, it may be uniquely women's teams that would give showers for players about to be married, arrange babysitting for each other to allow for twice-a-week practices, apologize after games for fouls or collisions and, according to more than one player, bicker among themselves about a coach's decisions. (Men, according to some observers, are more apt to either accept decisions or complain directly to the coach.)

But meanwhile, women like Betsy Zinner, a 46-year-old clinical social worker and mother of three, "wouldn't give it up for anything."

"This is one of the most exciting things I've done for myself," says Robbins team member Colosi. Adds her husband Tom: "It's given her a lot of self-confidence, and she and our teen-agers practice together, which gives them a commonality of interest."

League coordinator Shea says that when his wife, Terry, 38, of the Shindiggers, separated her shoulder in the first game of the year he heard her crying in the bathroom.

"I thought it was because her shoulder hurt," he says. "But it was because she wasn't going to be able to play that season."

Women who play soccer in a Masters League "take it pretty seriously," says Montgomery County coordinator Rick Shea. "This is no place for 'kick, giggle and chase,' but rather for doing the best you are capable of for a team effort."

Practice is often twice a week for several hours, plus weekly games during the fall and spring seasons.

For more information on women's Masters League soccer teams:

Arlington: Mary White (703) 536-6674.

Fairfax County: Sandy Bond (703) 250-8004 (Call before 7 p.m.)

Montgomery County: Rick Shea (301) 840-1784.