The graduation of a trio of four-year starters that helped make DeMatha's golf program the most successful in the Washington area in the 1980s, and a case of mononucleosis that will keep the Stags' No. 1 player out indefinitely, seemed to be good news for schools intent on dethroning the three-time defending District of Columbia Golf Association champion.

But DeMatha may not be staggering by May 9, when this year's regional championship tournament begins.

DeMatha started the season with a 41-match winning streak and, for the past three years, defeated Bowie, Maryland's top public school, in the area final. The Stags, winners of their first four matches this season, have undergone many changes since routing the Bulldogs, 8- 1/2, in last year's championship, but the likes of Georgetown Prep, St. John's, McNamara and Good Counsel are advised to reconsider if they think the Stags may not even be a factor in the private school section of area competition this year.

Graduated from DeMatha's lineup are four-year starters Pat Moyland, Joe Rhoa and Dan Podoley. Steve Woda, who played No. 1 for the Hyattsville school last year, struggled through DeMatha's first two victories this year before discovering his weak play was due to a case of mononucleosis. Add to the revamped look a new coach, Pete Strickland, who took over for Ray Smith, the organizer of DeMatha's golf program 19 years ago.

The Stags might have appeared ready for a fall, but Woda has many positive things to say about the team, and believes it has a good chance to maintain its preeminence even if he does not return for the championship.

"I don't think people expected us to be all that good because we lost those three starters," said Woda, who produced regular top 10 finishes last summer playing a national junior tournament schedule. "But there is a big difference to this team. We have a bunch of players who are deadly serious about practicing and playing golf. We are going to surprise people."

Nobody has ever tried to disguise the fact that despite winning results, DeMatha's golfers in previous years had other priorities during the season. Two starters last year were also on the baseball team and rarely did more than play in matches with the golf team.

Woda's brother Tim, a sophomore, is much improved over the 6-6 record he turned in as a starter last year. Seniors Ray Bellamy and Steve Marino are solid, although not spectacular, players, as is junior Andy Schroeder. Sophomores Gary Hefner and Sean Callahan may have to contribute earlier than expected, but both have shown ability.

The key for DeMatha, however, is expected to be freshman Del Ponchock.

"He can tee it up in Prince George's County and go around these courses shooting 72-78," said Smith, who still takes an active interest in the team.

Strickland, the junior varsity basketball coach who admits he still has much to learn about golf, knows enough to understand his position.

"Ray still does a lot; I'm just like Joe Altobelli when he took over the Orioles from Earl Weaver," said Strickland. "I just put the kids through their paces and hope I can keep them on an even keel without getting a flat tire. Without Steve, the other kids really have seemed to come together. They each know they have to do a little more."

St. John's, led by Geoff Gonella, and Good Counsel, whose Tommy Iredell may be the area's top schoolboy player, will probably challenge DeMatha for the regular season Metro Conference title, along with McNamara.

The area's best private-school team may be Georgetown Prep, which will send All-Met Dave Gildea and all-league Doug Yeatman against Interstate Athletic Conference opponents. They are backed by junior Chris Ryan, sophomore Bob Cashman and four freshmen over whom Coach Bob Barry cannot help controlling his enthusiasm.

Trip Shreeves, John Hilliard and Lane Ryan all bring solid games from their home course at Congressional. Chris Winter brings a well-honed style from Chevy Chase Club.

"Trip Shreeves could become one of our best ever," said Barry. "I expect a lot out of our freshmen."

Prep lost to DeMatha in the early rounds of the area championship the past three seasons. This year, Barry thinks he has enough talent to win the private-school section and meet the public-school winner for the title. Steve Woda's return could be Prep's major obstacle.

"The quicker I get back, the better it will be for our chances," said Woda. "I'm going to do everything I can to be back for the tournament."