Like seasoned advance men in a primary race, the coaches of Northern Virginia's top boys high school crews are reluctant to say how far ahead of everyone they are.

"As of right now, we're pretty slow," said Washington-Lee Coach Charlie Butts, a week before the start of the season. "By May I hope we're respectable."

Bob Spousta, coach of the perennial powerhouse T.C. Williams, was similarly understated, preferring instead to talk about Washington-Lee and the girls program at the Alexandria school.

"Washington-Lee," said Spousta. "I suspect they're real tough. They beat us three times last year. Charlie (Butts) has some good kids.

"Yeah, we have a good squad," he said. "But our girls may be more talented than our guys."

Even if Butts and Spousta deflect attention from their crews by understating their talent or by praising others, there is no denying that Washington-Lee and T.C. Williams are the strongest crews in Northern Virginia, and that Yorktown, Fort Hunt, Woodbridge, J.E.B. Stuart, Potomac and Gar-Field are the challengers.

The Titans proved as much two weeks ago when they won eight of 11 races, including the boys' and girls' varsity and lightweight eights, at the Cherry Blossom Regatta on the Occoquan River.

With approximately 120 oarsmen in his high school program and the Titans now practicing on the Occoquan, the T.C. Williams program may be one of the top in the country right now.

All this isn't to say that the Titans won't be tested. T.C. Williams rows against Holy Spirit (Atlantic City) and St. Andrews on Saturday at St. Andrews. Both have top-notch crews.

Said Spousta: "That's our toughest race early in the year."

At Washington-Lee, Greg Caldwell, Sean Hall, Shaun Flanagan, Pablo Parada and Jason Starr return from the eight-oar shell that won the Northern Virginia championships and Occoquan sprints. Coxswain Peter Dominick will help newcomers in the three vacated seats.

If there is a favorite among the six other crews, Yorktown is it. Along with Washington-Lee, the Patriots are one of the two schools that still boat out of Potomac-based boathouses, but for the first time this season there will be no high school races on the Potomac.

Like the boys, T.C. Williams and Washington-Lee could dominate girls crew, but unlike the boys, the Generals may be a notch above the Titans and Al Viliaret's Yorktown crew could be more than a token challenger.

Coach Tom Schisnell has 30 girls returning from last year and the total of 75 in his Washington-Lee program is the largest ever.

Kate Martin, Meg Proctor, Kirsten Parson and Pam Barsby return from last year's undefeated junior national champion lightweight eight.

Twelve of 16 oarswomen return from the junior eights that finished second and third last year. Jennifer Scotti, who attended school in Louisiana her junior year, has returned to Washington-Lee to row this season. Scotti, stroke Helen Heglen and coxswain Stephanie Scholaert will be mainstays in the first girls eight.

At Yorktown, two girls, Kathy Cullicott and Becky Barrett, remain from the National Junior Four Championship crew that won the National Scholastics on the Occoquan in 1983. Along with coxswain Carrie Planert, the three are part of the crew that won at Stotesbury.

One interesting development in Northern Virginia's high school crew is that all local races will be held on the 1500-meter, six-lane Albano course at Sandy Run Park on the Occoquan River. The adoption of the new race site, leaving only Yorktown, Washington-Lee and some of T.C. Williams junior high crews on the Potomac, is a boon for all who are able to race there.

Predictable racing conditions and lack of a strong current make the site one of the top courses and training centers on the East Coast.