Sometimes the biggest may be the best.

At least that's what St. John's hopes now that 6-foot-6, 275-pound John Ricca has taken over as football coach and athletic director.

And the early returns are quite encouraging for the son of former Washington Redskins defensive lineman Jim Ricca.

Once the benchmark for Washington scholastic football excellence, the Cadets had fallen on hard times, winning only three games in the previous two seasons. But Ricca has guided St. John's to a surprising 2-1 mark and is aiming for a .500 season or better. The Cadets will play O'Connell in their Metro Conference opener Friday night at Washington-Lee.

"We are not big or fast in a league where everyone else is very big and very fast, but our players are as aggressive as they come," said Ricca, a two-time All-Met at Georgetown Prep in 1968-69. "We may not have the talent right now to beat DeMatha, Carroll or McNamara, but if we play a near-perfect game against them, who knows? And I think we really are competitive with the other teams in the Metro Conference. More importantly, our players think we can win some league games this season and they expect to win several."

A whirlwind on the sidelines, constantly bellowing encouragement and strategy to his players, it is little surprise that Ricca is a successful high school coach, despite the fact he had little scholastic coaching experience.

Ricca earned All-America honors as a defensive lineman at Duke in 1973 and then, like his father, went on to play professionally. He played briefly with the New York Jets and Chicago Bears of the National Football League, with the Florida Blazers and San Antonio Gunslingers of the defunct World Football League and with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League.

He served as a football assistant and head basketball coach at Bullis Prep in 1977-78 and as a football assistant at Walter Johnson in 1983. His only football head coaching experience came during the past three years when he coached his son in the Gaithersburg Sports Association, finishing undefeated each season.

"The St. Albans game {a 19-17 defeat two weeks ago} ruined my undefeated record," laughed Ricca.

Ricca is also fortunate to have former Springbrook quarterback John Strittmatter and Harry Jenkins, a longtime Georgetown University offensive line coach and 1961 All-Met offensive guard at St. John's, as assistants.

Ricca's enthusiasm and football knowledge will only carry his program so far, but help is on the horizon because St. John's boasts a 3-0 junior varsity team and a 2-1 freshman team. Ricca knows that great players make great coaches, but faces a dilemma of sorts.

"Good players are attracted to good programs and winning programs, so how do you break that cycle?" asked Ricca.

His area ties help greatly, as do his five years as commissioner of Washington's Catholic Youth Organization football leagues. And Ricca may already have the highest visibility of any area high school football coach because of his weekly radio and television shows.

"I have had a Saturday morning sports commentary show on WINX {AM-1600} for 11 years and I have done color commentary on their Montgomery County high school football and basketball games for the past two years," said Ricca. "And this is my second season as host of '50-Yard Line' on Sunday nights {at 7:30} on WFTY {TV-50}."

Now he hopes the Cadets will be the ones gaining visibility.

"Playing St. John's won't be a guaranteed win for anyone anymore," Ricca said. "Our players hit too hard to allow that. And we might still surprise some folks this year, but give us some time, and we'll get even better."