The two strongest high school football teams in Northern Virginia last year, T.C. Williams and Robinson, were dominated by seniors. Take away the 12th-graders from those AAA Northern District teams and you're left with room at the top.

Not only does it open the entire region to a host of contenders, but it also turns the region's most competitive district, the Northern, on its head.

Challengers for the region title could come from the Great Falls District. Marshall, which lost its first three games last year before winning six of its last seven and has 16 starters back, and Herndon, which retains last year's passing duo of quarterback Keith Moody and receiver Barry Johnson, probably are the best. South Lakes, the defending district champion, has only four returning starters from a team that lost to T.C. Williams, 28-7, in a region semifinal.

A new force in the Gunston District might be West Potomac, the result of the Groveton-Fort Hunt merger. It has a new nickname, the Wolverines; a new coach, Dan Meier, but an old problem: It has to play Mount Vernon and Hayfield.

Hayfield's Jerry Lowe thinks he has his best team in four years of coaching. Mount Vernon, the AAA state champion in 1983, was 4-6 last year, but four losses were by forfeit.

If parity doesn't reign supreme in the Potomac District, Stuart, Chantilly or Annandale might. Although Stuart lost 15 of 22 starters and Coach Tom Arehart calls it a rebuilding year, he believes that two district championships in the last two years have endowed the Raiders with a winning tradition. Chantilly finished 7-3 overall and 5-1 in the district a year ago, and kicker Mike Campbell, identified as one of the top 25 kickers in the nation by Street and Smith's magazine, gives the Chargers a scoring threat inside the 30-yard line. Annandale has some transfers that make it a contender.

In the Commonwealth District, Osbourn Park has three backs returning who combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing. Victor Cahoon is the best of the talented lot; he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had 16 touchdowns last season. Beyond the Yellow Jackets, Potomac, Stonewall and Gar-Field will fight it out.

The most intriquing possibilities are in the Northern District, which produced last year's AAA state champion, T.C. Williams. The Titans, who retain only two starters and their kicker, Pete Blumberg, from last year's team, ran their undefeated streak to 15 games last Friday in a season opener against Edison. Most district coaches feel, however, that the champion will have at least one loss and tie-breaking procedures will be needed to decide the titlist.

"As far as returning starters go, Lake Braddock and Oakton are loaded on paper," said W.T. Woodson Coach Kenny Poates. "Robinson and T.C. Williams lost so many seniors. It just makes for an interesting season. I would be surprised if the winner were undefeated."

Robinson, too, is missing many of its starters from a team that lost only to T.C. Williams last year. The Rams open with four challenging nondistrict opponents: Hayfield; Herndon; South Lakes, and Mount Vernon. "I want to win the district, because then you're in the playoffs," said third-year Coach Nick Hilgert. "What we want to do is improve in each ball game. We've got four nondistrict games, and if we can improve with each, we'll be okay."

Hilgert will look for improvement in his offensive line, where his most experienced returnees are two senior nonstarters, and in the defensive backfield, where three of four players are new.

But the defensive unit probably is Robinson's strong suit. All-district end Dave Michaud, weak-side linebacker Tom McCay and cornerback Ron Lewis return. Hilgert has juggled personnel to improve the unit against the run. Mark Collier, a linebacker last year, will play defensive tackle, and Proctor Land, a defensive end a year ago, has moved to linebacker.

Last year was a "senior" year for the Northern District, but, says Oakton Coach Bob Herb, "not for us."

"I think we'll be very competitive," said Herb, whose team finished 4-6 last year. "We played a lot of underclassmen last year. The young kids took a beating, but I think we're ready to compete."

Barry Kramer, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound fullback, returns, as do four of the five starters on the offensive line. Look for Kramer to run right, behind Mark Wells, a 6-2, 225-pound guard, and D.R. Carlson, a 6-3 1/2, 250-pound tackle.

Defensively, D.R. Carlson will anchor the line. Pat DesBois, a linebacker, and strong safety Jamie Savage also are key members of the unit.

Lake Braddock has 240 players in three programs, but only five kids over 200 pounds. "We've got kids coming out of our ears," said fifth-year Coach Joe Clark. "But we don't have any size.

"We have good running and defensive backs and good receivers. We have good perimeter people, but the linemen on both sides need to progress for us to do really well."

The Bruins' strength is in the offensive and defensive backfields. Roger Boone, an honorable mention all-Met who gained more than 1,500 yards last year, and speedy Chris Coleman, who gained more than 600 yards and had three touchdown runs of better than 80 yards, return. Cornerbacks Franz Pago and Cisco Jeter, and free safety David Anderson also started last year.

With the infusion of players such as 6-5, 225-pound linebacker Chris Sterns, who attended Lake Braddock as a freshman but has been in Germany the past two years, Lake Braddock probably will be able to better the 5-4-1 (0-10 after forfeits) record it compiled last year.

At W.T. Woodson, two starters return on offense and four on defense. Second-year coach Poates says the biggest question mark is the offensive line. "We only have one kid returning who got any playing time and he didn't even letter," Poates said. Defensively, the linebackers are untested.

Jon Gubanich, a 5-11, 165-pound senior slot back, and Mark Hite, a 5-10, 185-pound junior tailback, are the only returning starters.

Senior Matt Heck, a 6-2, 185-pound safety, and three linemen, Danny Cook, Andy Michaelis and Brad McKinemes, are defensive standouts, but Cook and McKinemes might be moved to linebacker, where the Cavaliers are thin.

Frank Creneti, the former Fort Hunt coach, has moved to West Springfield, where he'll try to turn around the Spartans, who were 1-9, and 0-5 in the district.

Creneti knows what to expect from his new district. "Like I always told everybody," he said, "we've always played Northern District teams."

In the Great Falls District, Marshall was 6-4 last year. Nine offensive starters return, including quarterback Maher Hassan, who completed more than 50 percent of his passes, and his two receivers, 6-5, 210-pound tight end Derrick Rouse and Andy McBride.

"We're really a run-oriented team, though," said Coach Neil Callahan. "We'll throw more than we did in the past because we have such excellent skill positions, but it's not going to become a passing circus."

Callahan will play one of his most important games the second week of the season when Marshall plays host to South Lakes.

At the start of the season, South Lakes will rely on players like Russell Locklear, a linebacker and tight end, to play both ways.

"We have six kids going both ways presently," said Coach Tom Secules. "We're not that bad, but we have to have players who can give our two-way players a break."

If not, teams like Herndon (5-2, 5-5 overall) and Madison (5-2, 8-2) could prove very tough.

Success at Madison may hinge on the quarterback and defensive secondary situations. The team is strong at running back, with fullback Jay Casello and Mike Hanson, and at receiver, with seniors Jeff Davis and Brian Kelly.

Langley, led by 6-4 1/2, 217-pound fullback Bret Boehly, lost its opener to West Potomac. Langley, Washington-Lee and Yorktown all were 2-5 in the district, but it was McLean that finished at the bottom with a 1-6 record.

In the Gunston District, Mount Vernon, which won its opener over Wakefield, is big and experienced. Coach Bruce Patrick has five players returning on offense and five on defense. Mark Cottom will run the team at quarterback, but that could change when Tag Entwisle returns from a preseason injury.

Hayfield is led by tight end J.B. Binlien, a 6-3, 220-pound senior, and quarterback Joel Neufang, who started last year. The Hawks also have two fullback-type runners -- 6-3, 215-pound Ken Judy, a three-year starter, and 6-3, 200-pound Steve Brown -- who will play at the same time.

At Edison, which finished 1-4, 3-6-1, punter Jerry Jackson and place-kicker Ted Crews square away the kicking game but Edison might have to rely on them more than it would like to if its wishbone offense stalls. Lee (1-3-1, 4-5-1) is strongest on defense, which is led by linemen Phil McNichol, Gary Black and Tim Daniels.

In the Potomac District, Stuart remains committed to the one-back offense and the passing game. Wide receiver Jeremy Worrell will be quarterback Tom Arehart's favorite target. Three transfers, including junior linebacker Tim Keiser, will help a team with only seven seniors starting.

Annandale, too, will benefit from transfers. The Atoms got J.R. Chesley, a 6-3, 195-pound running back from Lackey High School, and Paul Spencer, a 6-1, 180-pound sophomore running back from Texas.

Chantilly is without the services of tight end Roger Smith, who broke his arm and might be out for half the season. The other components of last year's passing game, quarterback Jimmy DeProspeiro and wide receiver Bryant Hatcher, are intact.

Falls Church has a new coach, Dudley Johnson, and a group of new players. Receivers Charlie Tutt and Chris Green never have played before, but they complement Falls Church at the skill positions, where it already is strong with tailback Tony Epperson and quarterback Jeff Wilson.

Fairfax was 3-3 in the district and 6-4 overall, its first winning year in seven years, but the team only has 12 seniors this year. To team leaders like Rod Nobles, a tight end and defensive tackle, and Alvin Guthrie, an offensive guard and linebacker, falls the task of rebuilding.

Jefferson will strive for .500, something it achieved last year in the district and overall. Wakefield, led by quarterbacks Joe Lowe and Steve Pagach, and tight end Dion Savoy, is out to do the same.

In the Commonwealth District, Osbourn Park (6-2, 8-2) has three talented runners in Cahoon, Tommy Chambliss and Thomas Keith. "There are a lot of question marks," said fifth-year Coach Chuck Hornfeck. "Coaches look at Keith, Cahoon and Chambliss, but I'm really not sold that we're as good as we were last year."

For starters, only one player on the offensive line returns, which could open things up for challengers like Stonewall Jackson, the district champion last year with a record of 9-0-1.

Gar-Field, with first-year Coach Chris Courtney, is strong in the secondary, where Jeff Parker, Kevin Fowlkes and Dave Clinton return. At Potomac, Coach Bill Brown believes part of his team's success last year (9-1) resulted from using his most talented athletes on offense and defense. This year, two of his best players, Donald Tisdale and Leonard Williams, will play defensive back and alternate at tailback.

North Stafford, with eight players back on each unit, had two good preseason scrimmages, and could surprise. Quarterback Pat Sweet and running backs Bryan Berryman and Chris Roy will run out of the split-back veer.