DeMatha's lacrosse coaches, Jack Hagey and Steve Kisselnicki, have noticed the change. Landon's Rob Bordley and Episcopal's Joe Shelor are aware of it, too.

These prep school coaches are witnessing the impressive growth of lacrosse in the area. Just a few years ago, it seemed little more than a pastime or, at best, an extracurricular activity.

"We're not at the level of the Baltimore and Anne Arundel schools, and I don't think we'll ever be. But I don't think it really matters," said Shelor, whose Episcopal squad consistently is among the best in Northern Virginia. "We're competitive. Maybe once in a while, one of (the area's prep teams) will go up to Baltimore and play one of their teams evenly. It varies. But top to bottom, there's a lot more quality around here than a few years ago."

Bordley said, "It's getting closer. I don't think we're ever going to surpass the success of the Baltimore schools, where they begin playing as soon as they learn to walk, but we can be competitive. I think my team this year could be very good in their B league. We've got a good program. It may drop off a bit year to year, but we're consistent."

The success of Landon and Episcopal is partly the result of well-structured programs. Shelor, who says lacrosse has become the most popular sport at the school, has emphasized consistency, forming freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams. Many of the freshmen are getting their first exposure to the sport.

It is that kind of structure that other teams would like to duplicate. DeMatha's six-year-old program became a varsity sport only last year, but already it is the elite among the area's independent schools.

Aside from his duties at DeMatha, Hagey serves as the commissioner of the Washington Area Lacrosse League (WALL), which consists of six varsity and 11 club teams, such as the Bethesda, Braddock Road and Prince George's lacrosse clubs. Hagey has steadily turned the WALL from a disorganized unit into a respectable one, and he says the league is healthy.

With a junior-dominated team, DeMatha is in good shape to take the WALL title, which went to Braddock Road last year. Braddock Road lost its star player, Tom Worstell, now a starting midfielder for the University of Maryland, and should feel the effects of his absence despite the return of some good talent.

DeMatha's problems are on attack, where Kevin McCarty and Joe Dapolonio are expected to assume most of the burden. The midfield looks good with Jeff Smith, Johnny Inglisa and Chris Kennedy and the defense returns Jim Thibodeau and goalie Dave Slomkoski.

Hagey does not know if DeMatha has consolidated its place as a lacrosse power just yet. He said that when the current junior class graduates, the program could return to mediocrity and might need another three of four years to reestablish itself.

"I don't know if we're there yet, but I think DeMatha is a good prototype (of what we're trying to accomplish)," Hagey said. "I think we're trying to establish ourselves as an elite team with an improved schedule and things like that.

"We have a good base to work with because we have good cooperation between the athletic department and the parents. Those are the basic elements of a good program because you need support like that to grow. Because lacrosse is what the parents want, and they're the ones paying the bills, you're going to be able to build something."

As such, DeMatha should be a stabilizing force in the WALL the next few years. St. John's and Good Counsel have had programs for as long as DeMatha, but those two programs underwent coaching changes this season and have been hurt in the transition stage. Give them a few years, Hagey says.

Bishop Ireton of Alexandria appears as if it may be the surprise WALL team this season. Ireton earlier this season won a 7-5 game from Richmond's St. Christopher's, a top lacrosse school.

The area's other top lacrosse league, the IAC, is in good shape this season, too. Landon again looks like the league's best team, returning a veteran crew, and should take its fifth straight title despite pressure from Episcopal, St. Albans and St. Stephen's. Sidwell Friends' program is in transition with the loss of Coach Bob LaChance and probably won't challenge.

Landon's strength is in its midfield, which goes three teams deep. All-IAC player Matt Holleran is back, along with Tony Fuller and Bob Reyner. A solid attack is led by all-IAC Derek Kober and Rob Lankin, who was the key to the team's title run late in the season. Goalie Julian Gillespie is back, as are defensemen Ed Hall, Mark Odom and Tom Scott.

Episcopal is thin in its attack, with only Robert MacKnight returning, but has a good midfield, with veterans Edward Wilson, Scott Collie, Lathan Allen, C.D. Cater, Chris Giblin and E. Dan Smith. At goalie is Toby Burke, and on defense are Larry Williams and Christopher DeMovellan.

This should be one of St. Albans' best teams ever. Coach Kent Keildahl's group was 9-4 last year and finished as the IAC runner-up after losing a playoff game to Landon. The team lost three starting defensemen -- but goalie Kevin Zimmerman is back -- and success will be dependent mostly on its offense.

The attack returns veteran Porter Shreve and the midfield is led by seniors Todd Boley and Taddy Hall. St. Albans won't open its league schedule for two weeks, but won its first two games by a total margin of 30-8.