When George Mason University's nationally ranked soccer team lost to Duke in a regional championship last month, it may have been a disappointment to the team and its supporters, but as far as the the university's administrators and boosters were concerned, the game was something to be proud of.

For, after barely a decade of existence that included a stint in the old Fairfax High School building, George Mason University, located just outside Fairfax City, was on its way to becoming no longer just another anonymous regional college. Suddenly its name was appearing in newspapers across the country.

At GMU, where the annual athletic budget has hit the $1.5-million mark for the first time and construction of a new $10.9-million, 10,000-seat arena for basketball and indoor soccer will begin this spring, the unabashed goal is the bigtime -- athletically and scholastically.

And like Oral Roberts, Alabama-Birmingham and many other once-obscure colleges and universities, GMU, which now has 15,000 students and a $45-million annual budget, sees a successful sports program as the quickest route to the front of the university pack.

"We want to establish a strong community identity," said GMU's president, George W. Johnson, who supports the decision made five years ago to allow certain GMU sports to enter Division I, the major college and university division.

"We want to become the regional university for this area . . . . Once we've become recognized as the regional university, then we will have a shot at national distinction."

GMU, which has grown from about 2,000 students in 1972 when it first became an independent institution, has been reaching for national prominence for several years.

Each year, for instance, it sponsors a major writers' symposium that attracts big-name writers; it also houses a unique collection of Depression-era literary materials. During the winter, it serves as host to a well-known theater company.

But Johnson, now in his fifth year at GMU, is a leading advocate of using an aggressive athletic program to attract attention to the entire university. At the same time, however, he is aware of the pitfalls that can accompany a too-rapid rise to prominence through sports.

"We don't want to recruit people who aren't going to graduate," he said. "The drive for excellence in intercollegiate athletics is part of the buildup in academic areas, too."

Alan Srebnick, director of the GMU Patriot Club, an athletic department affiliate that raises scholarship money for the school's athletes, is seeing the benefits of success more and more often.

"Before, I'd contact people and say I was from George Mason University, and they'd say, 'George who? You mean George Washington?' " said Srebnick. "Once, someone even said, 'James Mason, the actor?' They wondered just who the hell we were.

"Now people within the local business community are starting to recognize us. Some of them even come to me."

The payoff of a truly successful sports program isn't just national recognition, however. It can also make itself felt in the university's treasury.

Srebnick, for instance, said he hopes to raise $150,000 in cash and gifts by the end of the fiscal year in June.He raised $105,000 last year and $78,000 the year before, his first at GMU. That money is earmarked for athletic scholarships, but so far has not been enough to keep up with rising scholarship costs as more student-athletes are enticed to George Mason.

The university absorbs the resulting debt because officials are confident that, given time, the athletic program will produce dividends instead of deficits.

In future years, more financial help is expected from alumni. For now, since nearly all of the 14,000 alumni are still relatively young and not able to make large financial contributions, not much support is coming from them.

"When our alumni get to be corporate heads and bank presidents, I hope they remember us," Srebnick said. "But they're not in those positions yet."

Meanwhile, Athletic Director Jack Kvancz said, "some priorities must be established . . . so we're not spread too thin. We'll emphasize the sports which are best for the university in terms of exposure and we won't put the same money into other sports."

The best sports for exposure purposes, Kvancz says, are basketball, soccer, and track and field. Of the three, basketball is the best.

Srebnick calls it "the revenue sport, the TV sport . . . . If basketball could win, we would really catch on." Track coach John Cook agrees. "I hope Joe Harrington, GMU's basketball coach does well. If he does well, we all do well."

GMU president Johnson puts it more succinctly: Basketball is "the flagship of our athletic program."

Last year, Harrington's team finished with 13 wins and 14 losses. Andre Gaddy, a 6-foot, 10-inch senior, became the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,568 points. With Gaddy gone (he was drafted in the fourth round by the Houston Rockets of the NBA and is now playing professionally in Barcelona, Spain), Harrington will rely on junior guard Andy Bolden and sophomore swingman Carlos Yates to lead his team.

The schedule is a tough one, too. It includes Duke, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Boston University and Long Island University in addition to league opponents in the East Coast Athletic Conference South.

"It's harder to build a program now than it was in the past," said Harrington, who was an assistant under Lefty Driesell at Maryland and the head coach at Hofstra University before coming to GMU. "Last year we had a better recruiting year than the year before. But we can't get into the recruiting battle with Georgetown, Maryland or Virginia yet. We're not known well enough."

But that semi-obscurity is also a benefit, he said. Good players who might be tempted to go to a name school run the risk of sitting on the bench behind All-American players, "but here, they'll get to play right away, and that helps in selling George Mason."

Harrington would enjoy a turnaround in fortune like that enjoyed by GMU soccer coach Richard Broad, whose team gained national attention this fall by winning 18 consecutive games and advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals before losing to top-ranked Duke.

"In the past, I'd go out recruiting and people would treat me like I had poison ivy," Broad recalled. He began coaching part time at GMU seven years ago when the soccer program was playing Division III opponents. "Now I'm cordial to players we would have bent over backwards for before. I've been deluged with letters from recruits this fall. In fact, I've written over 200 responses. Recruiting is now a different situation."

Broad will soon travel to Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Florida in search of "five, six or seven outstanding players. We must get guys other teams in the Top 10 are after."

Northern Virginia is one of the best sources of top-quality high school soccer talent nowadays, he said. In the past, some of them opted to go to schools with more established programs. Now, Broad is hopeful that they, too, will be attracted to GMU.

Basketball gets the most financial support from GMU in terms of scholarship dollars, and soccer is next. Track coach Cook said he operates "on a shoestring, a prayer and a whistle." Nonetheless, his teams have consistently performed well against top competition. And on Saturday GMU will host Georgetown, Maryland, East Carolina, North Carolina State, Navy, Morgan State and Howard in a major indoor meet.

But Cook said that the GMU track program, which operates on a budget of about $50,000 a year, is not in "the real world of Division I schools." He noted that track budgets at schools like Stanford, Tennessee and Penn State run more than $200,000 annually.

"The school (GMU) is hungryand eager in basketball because it's a revenue producer," Cook said. "Everything else sort of slugs along. There's not a real commitment yet, except for basketball."

The complete student-athlete, Cook feels, will respond only to a full scholarship, which is exactly what he helped get for freshman Rob Muzzio, a state champion decathlete at Fairfax County's Robinson High School.

Muzzio said he chose to attend GMU instead of better known schools like UCLA, Maryland, Tennessee and Virginia, which also tried to recruit him, because the "program is growing, there are good coaches, and there's a good business school."

Muzzio is impressed with the academic interest GMU takes in its athletes. The school requires athletes to attend a mandatory study hall four times a week from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. "That's guaranteed study time," Muzzio said.

Kvancz said, "We're not doing ourselves any favors recruiting kids who won't make it through."

As a further indication of its being serious about avoiding recruiting scandals, GMU does not provide a certain number of admissions "slots" for coaches to fill with prize athletes who might not meet all admissions requirements, Johnson said.

If a coach has a recruit whose college board scores are not slightly over 1,000 (which is required of most applicants) or whose high school average was not C or better, Kvancz said, "someone from admissions would look at the kid's background, have him in for an interview, see if he's articulate, and then it's up to the kid to sell himself to the admissions people."

Assistant Athletic Director Sue Collins is in charge of overseeing the academic performance of the nearly 300 athletes at GMU. "I provide them with anything that will help them do better: tutors, information on study skills workshops," Collins said. She has even gone so far as to walk some athletes to classes, tutoring sessions and skills workshops to make sure they get there, she said.

For the most part, the system works, she said: 35 athletes are maintaining 3.0 (or B) averages, seven are at 3.5 (B+) and one, soccer player Marc LeMair, is a perfect 4.0.

Collins is also responsible for monitoring NCAA rules in order to prevent GMU from falling into violations that could result in program-crippling penalties.

"She's on the phone with the NCAA daily," said Kvancz. "If there's any doubt, we call. For example, Joe Harrington had a kid he wanted to redshirt hold out of the lineup for a year so he wouldn't lose eligibility to play the following year . But he wanted to know if the kid could play in an organized league in the meantime . I didn't think so, but I wasn't sure. We called the NCAA and they said, 'No' he couldn't .

"I'd rather do it that way. It's a mistake not to work with them."

Despite all the potential for problems, GMU officials are pleased.

"I am fully confident in saying that none of our coaches are doing anything wrong," said Kvancz.