The gymnasium on the Flint Hill Preparatory campus appears barely large enough for a grade school physical education class.

That the bandbox gymnasium, with less than two feet between the sidelines and walls, and decrepit stands under one backboard, could house one of the top high school basketball teams in the country creates an unseemly juxtaposition.

However, the school's other facilities are commensurate with the talent that uses them.

There are the weight room -- complete with Leaper, Nautilus, Universal and free weight equipment; the carpeted and paneled locker room with individual stalls; the glass backboards with the breakaway rims.

"We need them (breakaway rims) because we have so many guys that can dunk," said Stu Vetter, the Flint Hill coach, as he watched 6-foot-6 sophomore Dennis Scott throw a thunderous dunk through the hoop.

Vetter, 33, is in his 10th year as coach of the Falcons, and in those years he has helped transform Flint Hill basketball from anonymity into a national power that sometimes sells out its home games at the 2,800-seat George Mason University Gymnasium.

Its name is regularly exchanged with those of Mater Dei and Crenshaw (in Los Angeles); the Dunbars of Baltimore and Washington D.C., DeMatha and Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin. The Falcons have finished in the national top 20 rankings in three of the last four years.

This year, Flint Hill is ranked highly again. Over Christmas, it won the prestigious 16-team Las Vegas-Brooks Holiday Classic, widely regarded as the nation's toughest high school Christmas tournament. In the semifinal, the Falcons defeated Mercer Island (Seattle), which was then ranked No. 1 by USA Today. The Falcons won the tournament when they beat Cardinal Gibbons (Baltimore), 72-70. Cardinal Gibbons was ranked fourth in USA Today's preseason poll.

Despite winning the Las Vegas tournament and despite their undefeated record (9-0) that includes a success over McKinley Tech (D.C.) locally, the Falcons are ranked behind DeMatha and Spingarn in the metropolitan area. But some of the Falcons were dismayed last week to find that they were ranked 20th, behind Cardinal Gibbons (15th, 13-2) and Mercer Island (17th, 9-1) in the national listing.

"We weren't irked by the area ranking," said Gus Hill, Flint Hill's 6-foot-3 senior all-America. "We were irked by the national rankings. They put us behind two teams that we beat."

Hill has a right to be upset. In the Brooks Holiday Classic, Hill consistently outplayed bigger players including Gibbons' 6-9 all-America Rodney Walker and Mercer Island's 6-9 Brian Schwabe. Hill's 48 points in the last two games earned him tournament MVP honors.

The Falcons will have a chance to improve on their ranking when they play the team now ranked tops in the country, Dunbar of Baltimore, Feb. 12.

In fact, the Falcons' remaining schedule is filled with strong teams that could help them improve their national standing -- Tolentine (N.Y.), Mackin (D.C.) and Oak Hill Academy (Va.).

Vetter believes that Flint Hill's schedule sets the Falcons apart. "It's one of the toughest in the country," Vetter said. "We don't have any built-in wins because we don't play in a league. DeMatha plays a tough nonleague schedule, but they also play McNamara and O'Connell and Carroll, which isn't as strong as it used to be. We don't have anyone in that category."

In any case, the Falcons won't get to play DeMatha, the area's top-rated team. "We would love to play them, but they choose not to play us," Vetter said.

The reason is that DeMatha refuses to play against teams that allow students more than eight semesters of eligiblity.

"The athletic directors in our league have strongly recommended not to play anyone who has five-year players," Coach Morgan Wootten said. "If we had 10 semesters, I'd be glad to play. I don't think we've ever ducked anybody. We play the best. It's a league rule. It's not something I have any control over.

"If Danny Ferry or Adrian Branch were around for 10 semesters it would be a different story," Wootten said. "It's nothing personal, it's a rule I have to follow."

As it happens, Vetter's team this year is one of his youngest. It is also one of his most talented. Hill, who usually ends up playing in the low post against taller players, is a mainstay as a power forward. He came to Flint Hill in the eighth grade and is the only senior who has played for five seasons.

Scott, who plays inside with Hill, was picked by Big East Basketball Yearbook as the No. 1 freshman in the country.

Senior Al Clark, who just turned 17 and has already signed with East Carolina, is a 6-6 swing man who helps inside.

Bobby Dobson is a senior point guard and Richard (Scooter) Berry is the off guard.

Vetter is accustomed to managing an abundance of talent. In his 10 years at Flint Hill, he has sent 17 players to Division I schools, including George Mason all-America Carlos Yates and Virginia freshman Darrick Simms.

Vetter remembers them all; portrait photographs of 13 of the 17 hang in the locker room (pictures of the four alumni from last year's team who now play Division I are being framed). But of all the 17, Vetter seems to remember one most fondly.

Mike Pepper was Vetter's first great player. Pepper graduated in 1977 and played at North Carolina. Pepper, who deals in commercial real estate, returns to see his former coach often.

"That's what makes it all worthwhile," said Vetter. "When players return to say hello or call to say they read about a big (Flint Hill) win in the paper." It is, perhaps, the reason that Vetter has stayed at Flint Hill so long.

But Vetter also recalls what Pepper did for Flint Hill for another important reason. "Mike came to Flint Hill in the eighth grade," Vetter said. "He didn't come as a basketball player, but he blossomed into one while he was here.

"When other players in the area started to see coaches like Dean Smith recruiting here they realized they could come to Flint Hill and get exposure to coaches of that stature."

"I've never been to a public high school game to recruit a player," Vetter said. "They come to us. The first contact is made by the player. If a player contacts me, I'll show him the locker room, and the weight room. I owe that much to my program."

Vetter also says the glossy poster, the 10-page media guide and the schedule attract players.

Vetter says he understands why people think he recruits. But, he contends, his "players are the biggest selling point. Players bring in other players.

"Richie Cooper (Flint Hill's MVP in 1979) brought in Nelson Smith, who brought in Eric Banks (Flint Hill's MVP in '82). Banks brought in Dennis Scott. I hate to use the term 'brought in' but that's how it works."

"Flint Hill was up and coming," said Hill. "I thought if I came here I would have a better chance to get a full scholarship."

Dobson learned of Flint Hill by word of mouth also. "My cousin, Kevin Sutton, who plays for James Madison now, recommended it to me," Dobson said. "He said it was a good program and that I could get a good education."

"I thought about going to some other schools, but they weren't really concerned with grades," said Scott, who followed his "lifelong friends, Eric Banks and David Adkins," to the Fairfax school. And like Banks and Adkins before him, Scott must commute 35 minutes to and from his home in Leesburg each day to attend Flint Hill.

Attending the private school also means that the players' families must meet the estimated $3,500 tuition. The school does not offer scholarship aid.

"The parents look at it as an investment," said Vetter. "If they play here for a year or two, it could mean a full scholarship, worth $50,000 or $60,000 . . . Let's just say it's hurting some of them to send their kids here."