Maybe you were thinking all high school athletic conferences are alike, a crucible of high-pressure games and high-strung coaches.

Well, think again. A quick look at the 6-year-old Potomac Valley Athletic Conference and you realize you've been following some other sports league.

It can't be this one, where there's no football season, a shortage of gyms and few rivalries; where the coaches actually like each other, where league meetings often are held at local pubs, where everybody who tries out for a team makes the roster, and where hand-shaking after games is not simply a gesture, it's a requirement.

The PVAC is the only league of its kind in the metropolitan area, an interdenominational, coeducational athletic conference that links 11 schools from the District, Maryland and Virginia, all of them private: Sandy Spring, Jewish Day, Georgetown Day, Field School, Edmund Burke, Queen Anne, St. Vincent Pallotti, Congressional (the only Virginia school), St. Andrew's, Hebrew Academy and Model School for the Deaf.

Above all, a fundamental philosophy rules the conference: academics before athletics. It's a simple creed, and one the league observes almost religiously.

"Athletics have a definite place here . . . but our main purpose is educating the kids," said Stu Brynn, the athletic director at Queen Anne. "We promise the parents that their kids will be ready to go to college when they leave, that they'll be academically prepared."

"I don't think we're much different than the IAC (Interstate Athletic Conference)," said Ari Preuss, the conference soccer commissioner and athletic director at Sandy Spring. "We want sports, and we want good sports. But not to the extent that they become our main priority and all our money starts going into the programs."

Cecil Lewis, the league president, said, "Our reason for existence is the students . . . Our league constitution states that our primary function is academics, even though we're an athletic conference. So our sports never get out of perspective."

To understand the league's appeal is to listen to the coaches and athletic directors talk about their programs. Sportsmanship, camaraderie and fun all are conference buzzwords.

The PVAC's recipe for success, they will tell you, is simple: strain out the pressures to win, stir in a double dose of spirit and serve for everyone.

"I want my kids to have a super good time in high school," said Preuss, "because, as statistics show, not many of them are going to play sports professionally. We don't worry about that here. We want them to be able to play a sport well, and play it the rest of their lives.

"In other leagues, most leagues, I think there's a big illusion with the kids. You get this attitude . . . they're out to kill, make the big money and impress the scouts. That's a little bit out of proportion. It's not very realistic."

Lewis, who is in the second year of a two-year term as president, was with Congressional when the school was a member of the Washington Metropolitan Independent Conference. He knows how other leagues operate.

"When your emphasis is totally on winning, you find coaches who are really only out to better their own reputations," he said. "This league is for the kids. And it's informal; we adjust to each other here. A team can't play a game on Tuesday? Well, we'll shift it to Wednesday and try again. Sure, if you wanted to win badly, you'd take the forfeit. But that's not what we're about. We just like to play."

Brynn recalled his days as a college football coach at a small school in Kansas and as a high school coach in Louisiana in the early '70s. He loathed coaching then; he loves it now.

"The pressures involved there were pretty heavy," he said. "And to tell you the truth, I never really enjoyed it. Only when it was payday or when we won.

"This is refreshing. And I like the philosophy: be good academically and let's win and have fun athletically. I'd recommend it to anyone."

The PVAC is the brainchild of Mike Papa, a former basketball coach at Montgomery College (1980-83) and now the athletic director at Jewish Day.

When he began Jewish Day's athletic program in 1974, he wanted the school to join a league, one in which it could participate competitively. While searching for the right conference, Papa organized the Jewish Day Invitational basketball tournament, which ran for three years and was a success.

"That's when it struck me," Papa recalled. "I thought, 'You know, it's a shame we don't form a league. The competition is so terrific.' "

A couple of phone calls and a dozen letters later, Papa was presiding over the first meeting. Seven schools agreed to become charter members. A league constitution was written (and rewritten, nearly 20 times), a board of directors was set up and, within a year, the PVAC became a reality.

"It's just incredible to see where we've come," Papa said. "I really feel great when I go to the tournaments, especially the basketball tournament. I look out and I see hundreds of people, lots of school spirit, a developing of rivalries and friendships, all the banners . . . It's an amazing feeling for me."

Indeed, he is a proud Papa these days. His league is on the move.

"We are going places," he said. "Our only problem is, nobody knows we exist. For years we've tried to get our athletes some attention . . . but we'll get there."

Not unlike the PVAC itself, the league's top athletes and teams have long performed in relative obscurity. But a number have made their mark, particularly in soccer.

The program at Queen Anne, with only 265 students to draw from, is consistently one of Prince George's County's finest. Over the last 3 1/2 years, the school's record is 54-15-5.

Queen Anne also has produced several first-rate players, including:

*Robbie Fettus, who scored 42 goals and was named all-Met in 1982 and is now a starter for Frostburg State.

*His brother Jeff, who was selected all-Met last season and is currently a goalie for Haverford College.

*Amir Shahan, an all-star midfielder last year at Jewish Day, who was recruited heavily by several area colleges, but passed to return to Israel and join the army.

*Gilad Simhoney, a 6-foot-1 point guard who led Montgomery County in steals with eight per game last season at Jewish Day, is now at George Washington University as a walk-on reserve.

"We've got some really talented kids and we've got some really good programs," said Brynn. "I think we're just starting to grow."

As the conference grows, so grow its facilities.

At Sandy Spring, Preuss said the athletic department has been raising money for a multi-complex double gym, which also will include a library and weight rooms. They hope to break ground next fall. Also in the works: another field for both soccer and lacrosse.

Queen Anne has just installed a $25,000 floor in the gym for the upcoming basketball season. Renovations have been planned for the weight room and the three soccer fields, already among the best in the conference.

Georgetown Day, which in years past has rented the Jelleff Boys' Club in the District for home games, almost has completed work on a facility on MacArthur Boulevard.

Edmund Burke will be getting its own complex within the next few years.

Congressional, whose volleyball team always has practiced outdoors, is sponsoring a "gymnasium drive," as Lewis calls it, to house both basketball and volleyball matches.

"I think we're finding our niche right now," said Papa. "I don't see any of our schools as a developing DeMatha, but we've got some very competitive athletic programs, too. I think we'll always be considered an academic conference, which is exactly the way we want it."

Said Brynn, "I think we have the best of both worlds. And I also think there's a definite place for us in the system."

He paused, and laughingly added, "Utopia, of course, would be seeing leagues like ours all over the place."