The score teetered, with neither the Hylton nor the Spotsylvania boys creeping to more than a six-point lead until the final minute of their Five County Summer Basketball League game Thursday night.

Hylton had inched ahead with about six minutes left and nursed a slim lead the rest of the fourth period for a 71-66 home win. Big deal? Maybe. This was the type of game the Bulldogs often lost last winter in finishing 8-13 and dropping 10 consecutive games to Cardinal District teams.

"I kept waiting for that moment [when I would think,] Okay, when are they going to throw it away, when's something [bad] going to happen?" said Hylton summer league coach Mike DeWitt. "That didn't happen. I hope that's a good sign of things to come."

Last season was marked by close losses -- by two points to Culpeper, one point to Woodbridge, six points to Potomac, one point to Stonewall Jackson and other tight games in which the opponent pulled away late.

That could have been the case against Spotsylvania, particularly with the Bulldogs fielding a bare-bones summer team. Varsity regulars Kenny Irby, Ahmad Brooks, D.J. Walton and Delondre Simpson are not playing summer league ball, leaving Napoleon Wright and O'Bryan Woods to carry much of the load.

Wright, Woods and their absentee teammates are anxiously awaiting news of whom their new head coach will be this winter. Ed Holstrom resigned last month after five seasons to take a job with the State Department of Education in Richmond.

"We probably need someone who would give us a lot of freedom," Wright said. "Not necessarily somebody who would let us do whatever we wanted to do, but have confidence in us.

"When you shoot a shot and you miss, you shouldn't have to be worried about looking at the bench and seeing a sub come in. We can play. We have good players. We just need confidence."

Woods thought the Bulldogs could have fared better than their 8-13 record last year. A variety of factors were hindrances: poor conditioning, the overlap of the state championship football season into the basketball season, the team's youth and wounded psyches from the string of narrow losses.

"Last year we didn't execute the plays toward the end, so once we start executing the plays more, then we'll be fine," said Woods, whose team will attend camp at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer. "We're going to have to get in better shape to go all four quarters."

Second-team all-district pick Ryan Sloper was the team's only senior, though reserve forward Dex Landreth is expected to move and not be with the team for 1999-2000. Despite the host of returning players, DeWitt, the Bulldogs' freshman coach during the regular season, thinks a number of positions could be up for grabs -- maybe all of them.

"With the coaching situation changing, anything is possible," he said. "A new coach might not be familiar with them and will probably say it's wide open."

Hylton lost last season a minimum of two times each to Gar-Field, Woodbridge and Potomac, the teams annually atop the Cardinal District. The Bulldogs infiltrating that trio, or at least contending for one of the top spots, is not entirely out of the question. "People are kind of getting an inkling of high expectations for them," DeWitt said. "It's in their hands."

CAPTION: Hylton's Dex Landreth goes over Spotsylvania's Larry Johnson for the basket Thursday night. The Bulldogs are 2-0 in the Five County Summer Basketball League.