What in the name of good times are 21 young men doing at midnight in long johns, short pants and garter belts, when they could be in blue jeans, sport shirts and hot cars?

They're on the ice, practicing for a shot at a national championship in amateur hockey, a game where hard body checks and good balance reign.

The team is the Fairfax Juniors, a hodgepodge of stickmen, aged 15 to 20, who hail from Springfield to Saskatchewan and sacrafice much of their time, money, social lives and health to take home a title and chrome-plated trophy.

"It's a lonely struggle, particularly at this age," said Bob Haran, an International Revenue Service agent by day and the Juniors' coach by night. i

It's also a financial hardship for some of the amateur athletes.

"Some of these kids go to school and work full-time just so they can play hockey," said Haran, ex-college goalie who labors at his sporting love in a city where most people think the blue line is only a subway track.

One of the "kids" is Haran's best player, goalie Stuart Girard, a junior-college student in Maryland. This year alone, Girard has spent $1,000 in travel and equipment just for a chance to get on the ice. "But it's worth it," he says. "I love this stuff."

All Juniors are playing out of their league in a higher age group, competing in the rough-and-tumble world of the Chesapeake League, home of the big guys in amateur hockey.

"That's why they're as good as they are," says Haran. "The league they'd normally play in stinks. They'd never learn anything."

But the Juniors' Chesapeake opponents grudingly admit that Haran's crew is not playing over their heads. This year, in regular season play, they finished third in the six-team league, with nine wins, five losses and a tie.

Mike Gannon, captain of Arsenal, a Washington-area team that took the Chesapeake title, speaks with obvious admiration of the sheer grit of the Juniors. "They are not afraid to hit, but at the beginning of the year they were. Now they're learning and getting stronger."

In the last regular-season game this week, the Juniors lost 5-to-2 to their arch rivals, Arsenal.

But neither Haran nor his team were disappointed. As some observers pointed out, to win that game and the league title the Juniors would have had to whip a club that sends two ex-pros, four ex-Princeton players and a lot of muscle onto the ice.

"Sure, we wanted to win," said Haran, "and we wanted it bad. But the Nationals are more important."

If the Juniors make it to the nationals, set for early April in Valley Forge, Pa., they will compete against teams in their own age group. The first step to the national title will be Saturday, when four teams face off in the Southern Region playoffs of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States. The first game of the regionals starts at 9:15 a.m. at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Northeast Washington.

The Juniors already were thinking about the regionals -- and a chance at the national trophy -- by the time of the final game with Arsenal. After the game, both teams retreated to the same locker room where the atmosphere was more convivial than it had been on the ice. For many of the Juniors, this was their last game in the Chesapeake League.

"I's sad it's over," said John Cloutier, a Canadian who fell in love with Virginia during the seven-month Chesapeake season.

Although Cloutier is returning to Canada after the national tournaments, he'll be taking a new friend, goalie Girard. "If you keep these guys apart, they never do anything. But together, they'll do anything," said Haran.

Come Saturday, Haran hopes the explosive pair will only do one thing -- win. "A shot at a national title doesn't come along very often," said Haran. w"You better believe we intend to win."

And if the past is prologue at all, this David-sized team that found success in a Goliath-like league, and practiced when their friends were partying, might do what they say they're going to do -- win a national title.