It's the hour of The Big Game, in a long afternoon of big games, at Independent Hill School in Prince William County. The player of the year will be picked and two teams are fighting for a spot on at the regional play-offs.

The hockey game between the red and white teams is coming to a fast close. Over the din in the small gymnasium, the principal shouts encouragement while the cheerleaders, students and teachers applaud each time a player connects with the puck.

A typical school contest? Not at Independent Hill. The eight hockey players are in wheelchairs; some of them can steer on their own, but others need help from an aide to move at all. It is no minor accomplishment that some players can even hit the lightweight plastic puck.

The 85 students at Independent Hill, ranging in age from 13 to 21, are among 3,700 Prince William students who need a "special education" because of physical or mental handicaps. Most students at Independent Hill, like those at the two other centers for school-aged children in Prince William, are severely retarded or have multiple handicaps. c

But federal officials are none too pleased that the 146 children in those three schools, as well as 88 others at a special education center in Arlington County, are separated from "normal" children at "regular" schools.

And while federal officials have not demanded the closing of special schools, they have told the State of Virginia that it better have a sound reason for justifying the continuation of such centers.

The basis for the complaint is the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, a federal law enacted in 1975 which says that handicapped children, aged 2 to 21, must have a "free and appropriate" education in the "least restrictive environment." In lay terms, the children should be "mainstreamed" into regular schools and classes where appropriate.

Under the federal handicapped education act, school officials and parents are required to develop an "individual education program (IEP)" designed specifically to meet each child's needs. In Prince William, and in other Northern Virginia schools, the IEP for most handicapped children calls for "mainstreaming" at least part of the day.

But, parents and educators say, "mainstreaming" is neither the most "appropriate" nor the "least restrictive" program for some children.

"Increasingly, we're finding parents coming to the defense of these kinds of (centers) because they feel (the children) can and do receive better support and services in those kinds of centers," said N. Grant Tubbs, Virginia's director of special and compensatory education. "And we believe there are needs which can be met best in that setting rather than in a regular school. But we haven't been too successful in convincing Washington of that."

Still, says Tubbs, "some parents want their children exposed to the slings and arrows so they can become hardened or inured to things they'll face later on. There's a mixture of perceptions on what's best."

The theory behind "mainstreaming" is to expose handicapped children to the "real world." The stimulation of "normal" learning environments in ordinary classrooms, some educators and psychologists contend, forces handicapped children to set higher goals, while helping nonhandicapped children to become more sensitive amd receptive to the handicapped. Generally, federal, state and local officials interpret mainstreaming to mean that handicapped children mingle with "normal" students at lunch, in music, art and physical education classes, and where children are capable, in some academic subjects.

Richard Blocker, who oversees Arlington's special education program, is a strong supporter of Jackson School, the county's special education center. Although Blocker says that most of the nearly 1,600 handicapped children in Arlington "have some exposure with regular kids during the day," he agrees with colleagues that mainstreaming is not the only answer.

"We push for mainstreaming experiences," he says. "But there is also that small population which needs special cuddling and help so they can compete with success.

"We intend to continue (operating) a separate facility as long as we have children whose parents agree, through the IEP process, that the child belongs in a separate facility."

But several groups of parents, particularly in Prince William County, are concerned that federal officials' insistence that mainstreaming is the best, and in most cases, the only answer for handicapped children could force the closing of the separate facilities where their children attend school. The source of their concern is a report issued last summer by the U.S. Department of Education, reviewing state monitoring procedures set up to ensure that special education programs were meeting federal laws.

According to the report, 17 programs were in noncompliance, including the special centers in Prince William and Arlington. Two other Northern Virginia jurisdictions -- Fairfax County and Alexandria -- were found to have relatively minor infractions, primarily regarding procedures for developing individual education programs.

The federal official in charge of making sure states properly monitor special education programs is Jerry Vlasak. Although Vlasak refused to speculate on the possibility that the Prince William or Arlington centers would have to close, he conceded, "If the action's we're requiring are implemented, then there's a probability of closing."

Prince William County Superintendent Richard Johnson says he does not know if there will be an effort to force the country to close the special centers, but he vows to keep them open and "to continue operating this way" as long as the centers are educationlly justified.

And teachers and parents in both Prince William and Arlington counties have no doubts that they are.

Says Therese Smith, a teacher at Jackson School in Arlington, "I have kids I simply couldn't imagine would fit in at a regular school because their social and academic skills are at different levels. Their self-concepts would go down because they could no longer be top dog . . . And the thing I like best about the center is that it lets them accept one another. They're in with their peers."

Joyce Compel, another Jackson teacher, says some handicapped children could probably attend regular schools "if the other students are prepared to receive them. But there's got to be a lot of preparation or they'll suffer both academically and socially."

Della Francis, principal at Independent Hill in Prince William, agrees. "We have kids that need a little-red-schoolhouse environment. This is a main campus for these kids. They couldn't make the cheerleading squad or the basketball team at Woodbridge (High School), but here they think they're great. Here, they can be the tops and they're not being pointed at as being 'different.'"

Francis asks: Could a 17-year-old retarded and physically impaired child who is still in diapers function in a normal school? Or a 19-year-old who is just learning to drink from a glass? Or the youngster who has up to 350 seizures a day, brought on by the slightest noise? And what about the little girl whose bones are so brittle they break at the slightest brush?

"You can try to mandate acceptance ( of the handicapped) by kids, but you can't mandate assimilation," Francis says.

At Independent Hill, Francis says, 61 of the 85 students cannot read or write -- and will never learn these skills. But they can be taught other skills, if they get the attention and special help they need.

For instance, Francis says, Independent Hill has a special program where each day students prepare meals to serve to county education officials whose offices are on the four-acre complex alongside the school. But the children at Independent Hill don't learn how to prepare meals from a recipe.

"This is a show-and-tell world for many kids," Francis says. "If you want to teach them to set tables, you don't show them a picture. You go over it -- and over it -- with them."

Francis concedes that the atmosphere of a regular school may be more appropriate for children with fewer or milder handicaps than those at Independent Hill. But for children with severe or multiple handicaps, she adds, the small classes and the large group of support personnel at special schools provide the intense and personal instruction that these children need.

She adds: "The point is, everybody loses (if separate schools are shut down): the handicapped child, the regular child because the teacher could have to give all this attention to the handicapped child at the expense of the regular child. Or the handicapped child doesn't get any attention."

But federal officials continue to ask if such special centers are the "least restrictive" environments, even for children with severe physical or mental handicaps.

Robert Day, principal of the New Dominion School in Manassas, believes they are. In fact, Days says, New Dominion was specially designed for such students.

"I think (these children) would all be staying home after the first month if they were forced to leave here," Day says. "I don't see where they would be any real commingling of kids if these children had to go to regular school."

Thomas Carter, director of special education in Prince William, contends that 95 percent of the children at the three special schools are so severely handicapped that they simply could not function in a regular school -- at least not now.

While federal official Vlasak concedes there may be some cases where a special school is needed, he says the state must prove that a regular school cannot meet those needs, instead of the other way around.

Too many handicapped children, Vlassak argues, are placed in special centers because of the category of their handicap instead of their needs. Those children, he maintained, could attend a regular school and be "mainstreamed" at least part of the day.

And Vlasak asks a question voiced by many opponents of the separate schools: "What is it they are getting ( at the special centers) which could not be made available in the context of a regular campus?"

Currently, the state is forming a special task force to review the federal complaints about Virginia's monitoring system. But some parents, wary of the ultimate result of the federal findings, already are making known their case for the special schools to their legislators and to federal education officials.

"It might appear we're jumping the gun," and Ann Millan, president of the Prince William County Association for Children with Learning disabilities. "But we don't want to sit back and find out three years from now that we lost the battle because we didn't act three years earlier."

But some groups who represent the handicapped on a variety of problems say mainstreaming and special schools should be the least of the parents' worries. Their major concern, those groups say, should be whether there will be any programs at all for their children.

In fact, officials of those groups say, sitting on their desks right now is a proposal from the Reagan administration to severely cut and consolidate funding for all educational programs for the handicapped.

The result, they say, could be that parents of handicapped children won't be fighting for special schools but for any kind of program that can meet the very special needs for their children.