The referee towered over little Stacy Smith like an unfriendly giant, shaming the soccer team's ace striker with a tripping call that could have turned the tide of the game against Smith and her teammates.

But wait. Smith was playing for the Springfield Spirit, the only team in the league with a perfect record, and a club whose cardinal rule is Grace Under Pressure. Seconds after her first yellow penalty card ever, the freckled 11-year-old lofted the ball into the goalie's net. The Spirit went on to rout their opponents, 5-0.

Soccer is serious stuff in Northern Virginia, and nobody is more serious about it--or has more fun playing it--than these 16 youngsters from West Springfield and Burke who created the Spirit only a year ago.

In compiling a remarkable 56-0 outdoor record, the Spirit has won two state titles and a fearsome reputation that makes teams from here to New York and Canada quake in their cleats.

"It is a special team," said Adele Dolansky, president of the Washington Area Girls Soccer League, which includes the Spirit and 131 other teams from Virginia and Maryland in its spring season.

"There are other, older teams with very impressive records, too," Dolansky said. "The Spirit gets unusually good support from the parents and coaches. And that helps a lot."

It helped last year, when the Spirit won the state championship and three Saturdays ago, when it took the title again. The support came in handy last Saturday, when it looked like the Fairfax Police Department club just might run away with the first half. And it certainly helped during the rest of the Memorial Day weekend, as the Spirit defeated three more teams to sweep the Springfield Youth Club's invitational tourney.

"All the parents are very affirmative," said Marcia Smith, whose daughter has played soccer since the age of five. "You never hear any criticism by one parent against somebody's else's kid.

"We don't fit the typical 'Little League parent' stereotype," she said.

Parent and child alike enjoy soccer--it gives both a chance to blow off steam two, three, even four times a week. They say they gain something else as well: the tough lessons of teamwork and competition, winning and fair play.

"The thing you never forget is that you've got 16 individuals on a team," said head coach Bill Rine, whose daughter Rebecca plays on the team. "It takes a long time to find out what turns a player off and what turns them on.

"But you can tell when the team clicks," he said. "And that's the greatest feeling in the world."

Like Dolansky, Rine credits the parents for much of the team's spirit and winning ways. One couple, Hal and Mary Kay Woodside, share the defensive coaching duties, while Bill Martinson coaches the offense. Several parents keep statistics, others are responsible for the water coolers and bandages.

Then there's the cheering. Few things are more intimidating to a nervous opponent than the din of 30 or 40 grown-ups--most of them clad in blue and yellow, the team colors--all shouting encouragement to Spirit players. They applaud every player coming off the field and grouse together quietly at a referee's bad calls.

"You're not going to find a team anywhere with more support from the parents," said Ray Schaible, whose daughter Amanda is a scrappy defensive player.

In Springfield, supporting your local soccer club means traveling to tournaments, such as the Robbie International in Toronto--won last year by the Spirit--and to annual matches in New York, New Jersey and other locales in the grip of soccer fever. Parents also buy English-made uniforms for girls who can outgrow the canary-yellow garments in one short season.

"Soccer is neat, that's all," said Lisa Zemke, a high scorer for the Spirit. "I like it because of all the stuff you learn."

Rine said he concentrates on basic soccer plays with his young players: passing, defensive blocks and the like. "It's funny, but they pick up on strategy very well."