Bishop Ireton and St. John's, two perennial powers when it comes to Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference soccer, figured they would be hard-pressed to again dominate the title race, but neither hoped it would feel the effects of the league's improved overall balance this quickly.

DeMatha, which finished 11-9-6 last year and was expected to be a threat this autumn along with Good Counsel and Gonzaga, already has struck a nerve with a 1-0 victory over Ireton last week. It could have been an indication of an interesting Metro championship race, as there will also probably be in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference.

Ireton was 16-2-6 and finished second in the WMAC last year. This year, the Cardinals had only four returning starters, but with a number of juniors moving up, they have nine seniors starting and should still emerge as one of the league's best.

Leading this team are goalie Timmy Paciolla, midfielder Eddie McCue, forward Billy Gavin and fullback John Delaney -- all seniors.

St. John's, last year's WMAC champion, returned 15 seniors including six starters returning from last year's 18-4-3 squad.

All-Met senior Andy Zamora returns as the key performer at midfield. Zamora, second in goals on the Cadets last year, "can do anything" according to Coach Rudy Beckmann. Known as an extremely tough and physical player, Zamora controls the play of the Cadets.

Another returning starter is senior stopper Brendan McCarthy. At 6 feet 2, McCarthy has great reach and excellent ball skills. Senior goalkeeper Todd Davis, a second team All-Met last season, senior midfielder Jeff Gordon also return.

Good Counsel was 12-10-1 last year, but returned six starters including Brian Halak, a junior defender who played with the Maryland State Under-16 team this summer.

Midfielder Tarik Walker controls the ball well and has a strong shot and senior goalie David Tenney also is back.

O'Connell, as usual, will also be strong. The Knights lost their first six games last season, 1-0, but went 12-0-4 the rest of the way. Senior fullback Randy Hicks and senior halfback Michael Siroitniak return to join talented freshmen brothers Mike and Paul Brisson and Joseph Thieman.

Gonzaga had a sub .500 season last year, but has nine players, including six starters, returning. Coach Chris Meagher believes he has enough talent to turn Gonzaga's fortunes around.

Halfback Michael Hart, a senior captain, will lead the team. Hart is an outstanding passer and dribbler, according to Meagher.

Also back is junior Mike Sloniewski. At 190 pounds, he has been moved from halfback to sweeper this season in hopes of providing more protection in front of the net. Meagher is counting on junior forward Khary Stockton to help things on the offensive end.

DeMatha has 12 returning players, including seven starters, so they could be a force.

Top players on this squad are midfielder Chris Mercier, fullback Matt Lany and fullback Brian Cooney, all of whom are seniors. The Stags will also be helped by newcomer Helmut Kramer, a senior stopper who is an exchange student from West Germany.

The Potomac Valley Athletic Conference should have an interesting race between Pallotti, St. Andrew's and Georgetown Day.

Pallotti was a mediocre 9-8 last year, but surprised many by advancing to the finals of the PVAC Tournament, where it lost to St. Andrew's in the final seconds, 3-2.

Among eight starters returning for the Panthers is senior all-league forward Steven Gottshall, who led the team in scoring last year. Gottshall needs 16 goals to surpass Gregg Lindsay's school career record of 40 goals. Also returning are all-league sweeper Chris Middleton and all-league goalie Bill Rueter.

To win the title, Pallotti will have to get by St. Andrew's, a young team that should nonetheless be strong.

The Lions are starting four sophomores and one freshman, but also show experience with senior midfielder Drew Curtis and senior forward Nick Denby. All-league sweeper Tony Ross has been moved to forward.

Bullis won the Interstate Athletic Confer nce last year at 13-5-2, and the Bulldogs appear strong enough to repeat.

"We're pretty optimistic. It's looking pretty good that we'll be in it at the end," said Coach Doug London, who has eight starters returning.

All-Met senior forward Mario Lone, who led the offense with 17 goals last year, should be a power up front.

The defense, anchored by senior fullback Fabian Souza, is also solid with returning senior goalie Mark Van de Poll and senior halfback Jason Goldblatt. A welcome addition is junior halfback Joe Hickey, who transferred from Woodward.

If anyone challenges Bullis, it could be St. Albans, which finished tied with Landon for second in the IAC last season.

The Bulldogs return nine starters including all-IAC Christian Powers, a senior midfielder, and Mark Purcell, a senior goalie. Also back are senior midfielders Geoff Benson and John Tepper. New players expected to help are sophomore sweeper Jay Kenny, junior forward Brian Gilpin and junior forward Todd Krulak.

Sidwell Friends finished in the cellar last season after two straight IAC championships, but the Quakers have nine seniors and should once again be in contention.

Benj Simons, a senior forward, leads the team. Nick Muis, a sophomore transfer from Blair, adds strength at forward.

The Washington Metropolitan Independent Soccer League has undergone a few changes as George Mason has moved up to A division from B while Ballou has dropped to B. O'Connell and DeMatha are no longer playing in the league.

St. John's and Maret, along with Paul VI, are the class of the A division. St. Anselm's and the Heights appear strong in the B league.

Maret should surprise many teams this year. The Frogs were only 6-10-3 last year, but have eight starters back and should be one of the top WMISL teams. John Belber, a senior halfback, leads the team. Other notable players are senior forward John Drysdale and senior fullbacks Josh Stanberg and Richard Berlin.

In the B league, St. Anselm's was 5-15 last year, but this year, the Panthers expect a better showing with seven starters back.

An important addition will be senior striker David Walters, who was all-league as a sophomore, but went to school in England last year.

The Panthers' captain is junior midfielder Matt Gerber. The defense is anchored by senior fullback Marshall Hayes and sophomore goalie sophomore Matt Abbruese.

The Heights has four returning starters including junior halfback John Hamill and senior fullback Tom Cavanaugh.