Westlake's Gonzie Gray and Thomas Stone's Marcus Whalen most likely will be linked throughout the 1999 football season. Both are running backs, and they start the fall as the best players in Southern Maryland. Sometime this school year, both likely will become two of the highest-profile Division I recruits in the Washington area.

The links between the two are nothing new. They go back nearly 10 years, to their days as 9-year-olds on the St. Charles 95-pound Green Bears.

"We were both real small and real fast, but he was better than I was," Gray remembered as he and Whalen traded stories and laughs about former teammates and games they haven't forgotten. "Yeah, homecoming game at White Plains Park, those were the good ol' days."

Now, Whalen is a returning All-Met and the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference's most outstanding player in 1998. He ran for 1,934 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

Gray's numbers are less gaudy overall -- 815 yards and 10 touchdowns -- but that's deceiving. In Westlake's offense, nearly everyone touches the ball, and he had just 56 carries -- gaining an average of 14.6 yards each time.

Gray, who is 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, is the defending Maryland 3A champion in the 200 meters. He finished a close second in the 100 as well.

"He has the best breakaway speed I've ever seen in my life," Whalen said. "He gets to the corner and no one is going to catch him. If you've got a good offensive line, that's the perfect kind of running back."

Gray will play cornerback and free safety at times for Westlake this season -- positions he could play in college. He also could play wide receiver in college.

"I think he's probably got a 50-50 chance of being moved," Westlake Coach Dominic Zaccarelli said. "It depends on what the school is looking for. But one thing's for sure: When you play college football, they are going to move you where they think you can help the team the most. For Gonzie, that may not be at running back."

Whalen (6-0, 208) is more likely to remain a running back in college, though he continues to impress coaches at linebacker as well. He averaged 11.4 yards per carry last season and also scored a touchdown on a kickoff return and two after recovering blocked field goals.

"He is just punishing," Gray said of Whalen. "I've never really seen one person tackle him by himself. He's the perfect combination of speed, strength and balance. ... What else could you ask for?"

Thomas Stone Coach Richard Callahan said the only thing he could ask for is more players like Whalen.

"He's obviously got great natural ability, super balance and great vision on the field," Callahan said. "But it's more than that. Marcus is very adaptable, very coachable. We tried this drill one day in practice last year where we showed the kids how to rabbit hop on their hands before going down to pick up a few more yards. The next game, there was Marcus rabbit-hopping for six more yards every time he touched the ball. If you had 11 kids just like that and went 0-10, it would still be a great season."

Right now, Gray says his top choices for college are Maryland, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia. Whalen says his top three schools are Brigham Young, North Carolina State and Virginia.

The recruiting process, which so far has consisted solely of letters from colleges and one visit from coaches in May, becomes more intense in September. Now, coaches can call prospective recruits once a week and are allowed limited visits. After Dec. 1, coaches face even fewer restrictions on player contact.

"The worst part of this whole process is the pressure," Whalen said. "Pressure from fans, parents, everyone. Everyone expects me to do this or do that. I just want to play."

Gray added: "There's also pressure for you to be an example for the younger players. Even if you're tired or sore you can't let up because then the younger guys will say, `He's got a scholarship and he's not working hard.' So you have to work much harder than everyone else, all the time."

If both backs have their way, they'll each carry the ball more often this fall.

"When you have a big back, he's supposed to be the workhorse," said Whalen, who has set his sights on gaining 2,300 yards this season. "I expect to, I want to carry the ball a lot more."

Gray is shooting for 2,000 yards, an ambitious plan in the spread-it-around Wing-T.

"Hey, I don't think I've ever carried the ball" more than 10 times a game, Gray said. "In our scheme, whenever you get the ball you have to make the most of it."

Making the most of this season should be one thing Whalen and Gray will have little trouble doing. Fans can check in on both players' progress on Nov. 5, when Westlake hosts Thomas Stone in both teams' regular season finale.

"The attention is nice," Whalen said. "But it's not about that. It's about Friday nights, being on the field. I've had three or four schools tell me I didn't even have to play this year -- almost that they didn't want me to for fear of me being hurt -- but I just couldn't do that. This is too much fun."