Northern Virginia high school girls softball teams have been producing high-caliber college prospects for several years, only to see those girls graduate, pack their equipment and play for schools far from home.

But George Mason University has recruited local high school talent heavily the past few years, and now the hometown players are paying dividends to the Fairfax school.

GMU's varsity softball team, with over half of its 16-woman roster coming from Northern Virginia high schools, leaves for Sioux Falls, S.D., this morning to play in the Division II World Series for the national collegiate softball championship.

"It's the 'Beltway Kids' against the world!" said assistant coach Doug Wheelbarger of the team, which also has several players from Maryland.

Indeed, the "Beltway Kids" have overcome great odds, rough moments and some fine opposition to earn their 30-12 record and ranking of third in the nation as they enter the series.

The team is young, with seven freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and just four seniors. Both Wheelbarger and head coach Carol Murphy are in their first seasons at GMU. So when veteran player Kim Gunther, the cleanup hitter and starting right fielder, was lost for the season after the top of one finger was chopped off in a freak accident at school the day before the season opened, the team was off to a jittery start.

At the Virginia Invitational Tournament the first weekend in April, the team played poorly. "We made dumb mistakes," recalled Wheelbarger. "Watching them was like seeing a nice car that's hitting on the wrong cylinders; the potential was there, but they weren't doing things together."

On Easter Sunday, with the team struggling with a mediocre 10-8 record, the players discussed their problems at a meeting without the coaches present. "Apparently they decided to play together as a team," says Murphy.

The next weekend the team played four games in the Liberty Baptist Tournament in Lynchburg, and defeated the nation's number-one-ranked team at the time, Winthrop College of Florence, S.C., 4-0.

The team exploded the next weekend at the Metro Tournament in the District. After defeating Mary Washington College and Liberty Baptist, GMU lost a 14-inning marathon, 7-5, to the powerful University of Virginia. The next day, playing in the loser's bracket, GMU swept four straight games before losing the tournament title to Virginia in a 1-0 game that ended at 1 a.m.

"They played those games on heart alone," Wheelbarger said, "because physically they had nothing left. But the key thing was that the kids were up, cheering for one another all day. In fact, the umpire said if they wanted to continue yelling, they'd have to move behind the bench. Every one of them moved so they could continue. They ignited, and the feeling for the rest of the season evolved from there."

GMU finally toppled Virginia the next weekend, 7-2, in the all-important state tournament. In the championship game, GMU scrapped for eight innings and beat Liberty Baptist, 3-2, for the state championship.

Still, the invitation to the Division II World Series was not assured. At the Regional Tournament the week of May 7 in Lynchburg, GMU won twice but lost the championship game to Winthrop, and the South Carolina team was invited to Sioux Falls.

The Association for International Athletic Women withdrew the invitation, however, when it was discovered that two of Winthrop's players were ineligible. The AIAW awarded the series berth to GMU on May 12.

"We did the things we were supposed to do ethically, morally, and legally," said Wheelbarger, "plus we had a good season. We may be fortunate, but we definitely belong" in the series.

Murphy, a graduate of Madison High School in Vienna, said her team is an "easygoing, loose bunch" that is unlikely to be affected by World Series pressure. She will be counting heavily on local talent such as Kay Herbstritt, a 15-3 pitcher from O'Connell High School; Sis Ward, another O'Connell graduate who batted .512 for the season; Terri Krucek, right fielder from Robinson High School; Pat DeArvies, catcher from Woodson High School; Lynn Thompson, first baseman from Fairfax High School; Mary Kennintz, catcher and designated hitter from Lake Braddock High School; and designated hitter Bobbi Pugh from Groveton High School.

The World Series, which begins tomorrow and ends Sunday, will pit GMU against such national powerhouses as Northern Arizona, the University of Nevada at Reno, Central State University of Oklahoma and Southern Illinois University.

"The fact that we're ranked number three in the nation tells us we're supposed to be there," said Wheelbarger. "The greatest satisfaction as a coach, though, has been that the team learned that if you don't play together, then people beat you."