Three years ago Neil Callahan was on top of the Northern Region. His Marshall football team had just won its second straight region championship and with many players set to return the following year the future was extremely promising.

So what did Callahan, who had emerged as one of the best young coaches in the area, do to take advantage of his high standing?

He left. He walked away.

Trading the known for the unknown, he accepted the job of building the football program at Centreville High School which was to open the following fall.

"At the time I thought it was neat. It was something I've never done, starting a program," said Callahan. "It's been fun but it's been a whole lot more work than I thought it would be."

The hard work is already showing dividends. With Friday's win over Wakefield the Wildcats have opened their first season of Northern Region competition with three wins.

Building a program was not totally new to Callahan. He took over a struggling Marshall team in 1982 and labored through a 2-8 record in his first season. A year later the Statesmen were 5-5 and they improved every season he was at the helm. By the time Callahan accepted the Centreville position, Marshall had one of the top programs in the region with consecutive Great Falls District and Northern Region titles to its credit.

So why leave and start all over again? "I think it's fun going from a situation like we had at Marshall where things weren't going so well and you build up every year," said Callahan, who brought Marshall's blue and white colors with him to Centreville. "That's sort of what's going on here."

The Wildcats played only a freshman and junior varsity schedule the first season with the teams posting records of 6-2 and 3-6, respectively. Last season Centreville fielded a freshman team and a varsity, but did not play any Northern Region teams. The freshman won eight of nine games while the varsity posted a 4-5 mark.

This year they entered the Northern Region as a member of the Northern District and have opened the season with wins over Chantilly, Falls Church and Wakefield.

"We approached the first two years with the idea that we would be ready to play this year," said Callahan.

Though the quick start has created quite a stir in the school -- over 6,000 people attended the Wildcats first home game -- both the players and coaches have vivid memories of how far they've come.

Aside from the on-field responsibilites, Callahan's load included ordering uniforms and equipment and putting a schedule together. He also had the task of convincing students, whom he had never met, to come out for football. And, despite his success at Marshall, Callahan was not exactly a coach the players were dying to play for.

"I had no idea who he was until the first day of practice," said running back Mike Donovan.

"It's unbelievable. You have to win the kids confidence all over again," said Callahan, who said just getting enough players was a problem the first season. "One of the things is you have to be consistent. You have to show the kids you're there for them. You're there for them in football and in school. And you're there for them when they leave school."

At the cornerstone of the Wildcats program is Donovan. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and is on pace to repeat that performance this year. He rushed for 93 yards against Wakefield to give him 326 in the three victories.

"He's one of those kids that works as hard as he can each day and makes the most out of the ability he has. He's just a great kid to be around," said Callahan. "The other kids look up to him because of the example he sets."

Halfback Tony Dewes, who played quarterback last year, has adjusted well to his new position and new quarterback Bjorn Mertin, a transfer from San Diego, has done an excellent job of running the Wildcats wing-T. Defensively, linebacker Scott Lancaster and safeties Brian Stansbury and Greg Viar have led a defense that has surrendered only 20 points in three outings. And, since the same players have now been together for three seasons, the Wildcats have a unity unique from other teams.

"That's a big advantage. When the kids went out for the first day of practice they already knew the plays we were going to run and they knew the coaches," said Callahan.

However, Callahan is careful not to get too excited about the early success. He realizes his schedule gets more difficult as they head into the always tough Northern District part of the slate. But with only six starting seniors and 150 boys participating in the program, out of about 600 boys in the school, he knows he has the Wildcats going in the right direction.

"I think things have gone pretty smoothly. I try not to put heavy expectations on the kids. I gear them towards just doing as well as they can and seeing what happens," said Callahan. "My biggest thing was I didn't want to start off with one of those terrible seasons the first year. Our goal is to make the Division 5 playoffs."

Donovan has more immediate concerns. "We kind of thrive on the pressure. People are saying we've just been lucky right now but when we hit the district games we're going to get whipped. That helps motivate us," he said.