It was a little after 8 o'clock last Friday morning, but the sun was hot and the dust was thick as several hundred boys and girls began the grueling quest for a soccer championship. The players, from age 8 to 18, had come from 11 states and four countries to compete in the Reston International Tournament.

Thirty of the 164 teams competing in the tournament, which was by invitation, were either state or regional cup winners in their respective age groups.

"The idea of a tournament is to bring the best competition together to improve the kids' skills and the game itself," said Chuck Heath, co-director of the Reston tournament.

Though half the teams were from out of the area, Virginia competitors fared well in the games. In all but four of 16 final games, local teams were invovled. Eleven of the championship-winning teams were from Northern Virginia.

"Whenever you play teams from this area, you know it's going to be tough," said Wayne McLaren, whose son Sean plays on a team of 11-year-olds from Raleigh, N.C. "The teams around here are just very highly skilled."

Those skills were abundant over the weekend. Spectators cheered long and often at play after surprising play.

For example, in a semifinal match between two teams of 11-year-olds from Reston, a player named Jon Lewis drilled a long line drive kick that dangled in front of the goal. His teammate, John Flynn, raced toward the ball while it was in the air, timed his jump and headed it backward into the goal.

"That's the fouth goal he's scored like that this season," an assistant coach said on the sidelines. "It's a difficult play, but a beautiful play."

Admiring adults were plentiful and as varied in their method of support as teams were in their style of play. One spectator read a newspaper throughout an entire game, looking up on occasion to say, "Well done."

Others were more vocal. One mother waited quietly until her son had the ball. Then she erupted: "Shoot it! Shoot it! Go, Robbie! Go, honey!" Her son never did score and she clenched her fists, stomped the ground and said, "Oh, it's such a frustrating game."

On the sidelines, the parents talked about 10-year-old players in professional terms. "He's undisciplined, but very fast," one man was telling another. "Good natural ability. I think I'm going to pick him up."

And there were many parents who twisted, kicked and contorted their bodies in vicarious efforts to "push" the ball into the goal.

At Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, one of 11 field locations for tournament games, a camper poked his head out of his tent and asked what was going on.Tournament co-director Heath walked by at that point and told the camper theere were championship games about to be played. The man decided to take a look and wound up watching for six hours.

"The games really are exciting," said Heath. The tournament is open only to "travel" teams -- those which see more competitive play than what they might find among the "house" leagues that compete on a community wide basis. "In travel soccer, that's where the pros and World Cup players of tomorrow perform. That's what makes the games so good."

The tournament took seven months to organize. Working with Heath were co-director Warren Pope, 25 committee organizers and several hundred volunteers. Proceeds from concessions, fees and advertisement in a 90-page tournament program go to individual Reston teams (about $200 per team) and toward field maintenance.

"Co-directing the tournament has been an avocation, not a job," said Heath, whose family took him out to dinner Sunday night after the tournament's final game had been played. "It was great. I just relaxed, and we talked about everything but soccer. It felt great."

However, Heath won't be away from soccer conversation or soccer competition for long. His team, the 13-year-old Reston Raiders, travels to Oakville, Canada, this weekend for another tournament.

To the regulars on the soccer tournament circuit, such a hectic schedule is not unusual. "I've driven four or five hours with my son's team just to watch him play in one game," said McLaren. "We're headed for a tournament in Atlanta for July 4. It's a lot of traveling. But for me and my family these tournaments are an excellent was to see the country and to have some fun."