In the last decade Yorktown High School has achieved athletic success in wrestling, swimming and tennis -- sports relying on individual performance. Team-oriented sports such as football and basketball have not been nearly as successful.

But last year, the boys basketball team advanced to the Northern Region semifinals, one victory short of reaching the Virginia AAA state tournament, and this year the football team has enjoyed surprising early season success.

In the past 10 years since the Patriots last playoff appearance in 1976, they are 23-76-1, with just one season at .500. But this season Yorktown won its first four games before losing to South Lakes last Thursday, 14-7. The last time the Patriots were off to a start this good they finished 9-1 (in 1970).

Yorktown, located in North Arlington, has the smallest enrollment in the Northern Region (998 for three grades) and is bidding for the same success that another small enrollment school, Marshall, had a year ago, when the Statesmen were the AAA state finalists. The most often asked question about the Patriots is how a team that was 3-7 in 1986 could be off to such a good start this year.

Third-year Coach Bruce Hanson attributes much of the success to building at the junior varsity and freshman levels.

"When I got here we weren't winning at any of the levels," Hanson said. "The kids never had good experiences in the program."

Yorktown's junior varsity has had a winning mark each of the past two years, and now the varsity is on the verge of a winning season.

Hanson, who was head coach at Wakefield for four years in the late 1970's, has an experienced staff of assistants. Gene Posati and Dave Gebhardt have coached in the area for 20 years and the four other assistants total another 25 years of experience.

"When you're winning there are no problems with morale," said defensive coordinator Scott Brooks, who the players are calling "Buddy Brooks," after Coach Buddy Ryan of the Philadelphia Eagles. Brooks has been coaching at Yorktown for 15 years as an assistant under four different head coaches.

"It was a mixture of things that caused us to go through a drought of winning," Brooks said. "It was a case of coaches not asking enough of the kids and the kids taking advantage of the situation. But Bruce has a good relationship with the kids and they understand where he wants to be in terms of winning."

Gebhardt, who has been a teacher at the school since 1973, said that this season's success is a result of something he hasn't seen in some time; "The attitude is the best its been in a long time," he said. "It boils down to teamwork."

Teamwork is stressed throughout the program. "Bruce lets each coach coach his area," defensive backfield coach Rich Avila said.

Hanson, who became head coach at Wakefield just two years after graduating from William & Mary, prefers to give credit to current W.T. Woodson Coach Ken Poates, whom he assisted at Chantilly and Woodson.

"I learned that from Kenny; he always let the coaches do their own thing," Hanson said. "If your assistants don't do any coaching they don't feel like they won or lost after the game."

Hanson credits his players for making the coaches look good too.

"I'd like to think that we {the coaches} are all geniuses," Hanson said, "but it all comes down to talent. And we have a lot of experienced players with talent."

The offense, which averaged less than a touchdown a game in 1986, has scored 86 points in five games. The Patriots have averaged 180 yards rushing per game, led by senior tailback Greg Graham (5-foot-8, 170), who has gained 454 yards and scored six touchdowns, with an 10-yard average per carry.

"The offensive line is getting all the assignments right," Graham said. "The backs have just been picking the holes."

In addition to Graham, fullback Raymond Scales (600 yards rushing in 1986 and 257 this year), quarterback Moe Wright (a four-year varsity player who has 470 yards in total offense this season) and tight ends Todd Jonasz (6-2, 200) and Bill Seymour (6-3, 210) are all returners from a year ago. The offensive line returned Jimmy Thompson (5-11, 200), David Trible (6-0, 220) and Bernard Hamm (5-11, 185).

Joining the seniors are two-way lineman Mike Parks (6-1, 220), receiver Stacey Turner (6-1, 165) and several other juniors. The team has averaged 59 yards passing per game to complement the rushing attack, resulting in 17 points per game.

Breaking big plays has been the Patriots' route to winning thus far. In the first three games Graham scored on runs of 69 yards or longer three times. The Patriots' special teams have blocked two punts. Yorktown has caused 16 turnovers while committing just five.

Linebacker Juan Craddock (6'1, 180) is the leader of a defense that has allowed 24 points in five games. He has 45 unassisted tackles, tops on the team, and has a fumble recovery and two interceptions.

"I'm not sure why we were losing," Craddock said. "We were playing hard but we never seemed to get any breaks. We've all been playing together for a while now and we're starting to get the breaks."

"Last year we moved the ball well but little mistakes like penalties would kill us because we rarely made any big plays," Hanson said. "But most of the skill players are experienced this year, and it is showing in their decisions on the field."

Defensively, two-way players Seymour and Jonasz have played big roles, as has linebacker Andre Graham, Greg's brother. An experienced secondary consists of David Vandermark, Chris Alcott , Greg Graham and Ethan Poole, who is currently sidelined with an injury. Vandermark also plays running back and Alcott is the punter.

Yorktown is just two games into what appears to be a difficult road in the Great Falls District. Marshall (4-0) and Madison (3-1) still lie ahead. But, because the Patriots are a Division V school, they do not have to win their district to qualify for the playoffs. They have to finish among the top four Northern Region Division V schools on power points, which are based on records and strength of schedule.

Despite the Patriots being a senior-dominated squad (25 out of 45), there are no real leaders on the team. Hanson looks at it as a bonus.

"All the kids have been together a while, so nobody wants to be the one pulling up the rear. It's why were winning, because we are a true team."