The loss -- the fourth loss in a row -- sinks in during the long bus ride home. In the darkness, after the adrenalin has burned off, the football players discover their aching bodies and bruised pride.

Traveling a long way to lose has become an unpleasant habit for the football team from George Mason Junior-Senior High School in Falls Church.

"The trip from Winchester, after we got our butts kicked, I mean really kicked, now that was a long ride," said assistant coach John Kalepp, after the team's most recent defeat -- to Osbourn Park High School in Manassas -- Friday night.

Because George Mason, the only public high school in Falls Church, has just 175 male students in grades 10 through 12, it cannot compete against neighboring schools, which are three and four times as large. Instead, it barnstorms northeastern Virginia to find Opponents only twice its size.

"We have had some very good teams, but that was before we got so small and all the other schools got so much bigger," said the head football and baseball coach Jack Gambill. "You can teach technique, but if you don't have the horse, it's tough."

Gambill has been delivering pregame pep talks to progressively smaller teams of athletes at George Mason High for the last 20 years. During those decades he has earned a few district championships, a reputation for excellence and a troubling case of ulcers. This year, says Gambill, his milk bill has been outrageous.

"There is stress in losing, feeling that you're a good coach but not being able to show it in the win column," mused Gambill during the hour-long bus ride to last week's game in Manassas. "You just have to be satisfied with playing to the best of your capabilities. If you're not, you go nuts."

The football team had a good season last year, winning six of 10 games. This year, however, it has lost five of six. And because half of those games were played an uncomfortable distance from Falls Church, attendance has been poor. p

"At home games we're lucky to get three or four hundred people," admitted athletic director Arnie Siegfried. Against Osbourn Park last week, there were only 70 Mason rooters.

"One game we had to turn around and lead the team in cheers instead of the crowd," said cheerleader Jodie Hecker between sis-boom-bas last week.

The low attendance hurts more than player morale. Because George Mason High cannot support itself from paid admissions, as do many schools in Northern Virginia, the Falls Church school board provides about two-thirds of the annual football budget. This year the board appropriated $5,500 for the team.

"I haven't heard anyone say we can't support the team," said George Mason principal George Thoms at Friday night's game. "I think because of the importance the sport has in our culture, it creates more excitement in school than any other."

Because the athletic pickings are so slim at George Mason, coach Gambill has players in uniform who don't look big enough to support their pads. There is a junior varsity at George Mason, but in name only. The ninth and tenth graders haven't played a game this year. Coach Gambill says he is sorry, but he needs them on the varsity. t

"It's tough on the kids, but if we didn't have them to scrimmage against and hold dummies, it would just take so much longer to get anything done," said Gambill, whose accent is still mostly middle Tennessee and whose brown eyes alternate expression from amused sparkle to doleful stare. "We spend all of our time talking about how important everybody is to the team. We use a lot of psychology."

But if George Mason Suffers any disadvantages in size, the team gives away nothing psychologically. In their dressing room before the game with Osbourn Park, players pounded lockers with padded fists and growled aggressively. Coach Gambill told them how "crucial" the game was. Coach Kalepp asked for the standard 101 percent effort. When the team charged onto the filed, it was with a roar intended to stop hearts.

The Osbourn Park team, of course, came out with equal ferocity. And it had the added morale booster of full stands and a marching band.

"We had a marching band last year," said one of the cheerleaders. "Well, it wasn't really a marching band since there were only nine people in it."

The first half was plagued by penalties, misplays and a thick fog. From the Mason sideline, the Osbourn Park stands were invisible. The players appeared to be slogging through a steam bath. Neither team could score.

The second half began with Mason senior George Byrd returning the kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. The jubilation was only slightly dampened by the missed extra point attempt. But it was crushed a few minutes later when Osbourn Park went 75 yards for its own score. The extra point was good, and Osbourn Park led 7-6.

The fog, which had lifted slightly during halftime, again covered the field like a cloud. Again, neither team could find a way through it to score.

With his team gathered around him after the game, coach Gambill delivered an emotional epitaph.

"If you don't hurt right now, down to the tip of your toes, you don't know what competition is."

Some of the players were obviously miserable. For the others, there would be time enough to get that way on the bus ride home.