Handley High School football coach Todd Hill started thinking about the Park View football team last fall, one year before his Judges would actually have to play the Patriots.

Hill was well aware of the success Park View had in Group AAA in 1998. He knew the Patriots ran the single wing, an offense against which he never had to prepare for in 13 years of coaching high school football. And he knew the Patriots were returning most of their key personnel from last year's team.

"Park View is the team to beat this year, without a doubt," Hill said. "When we found out [last year] that Park View was moving into our district, we started asking around, and figuring out how to defend the single wing. Our athletic director [Ron Lindon] used to be the football coach for years here, and he actually coached against the single wing. So I've been bugging him, asking him questions every time I see him."

Keep this in mind: Hill's team was one of the best in AA last year; the Judges were 10-3 and lost to Nottoway, 18-13, in the AA Division 3 semifinals.

Park View dominated its competition at the AAA level, winning the Liberty District title and advancing to the AAA Northern Region finals. The Patriots lost only one game during the regular season--by one point, on the road.

The question is, can Park View--which has 14 returning starters--repeat that success at the AA level?

"It seems like a lot of people have already assumed that the region and district titles are already set," said Park View senior offensive lineman Andy Skinner. "But my brother [Gerald, a 1996 graduate] played at Park View when the school was AA, and I remember that there are tough teams in the district. AA is not a step down. It's going to be a challenge, and it's going to be fun."

Here are four reasons why Park View is the consensus favorite in the Northwestern District.

* The single wing: The Patriots switched to the single wing last season, and the unusual offense paid off immediately. Park View set a school record for most points scored in a 10-game season (362) and averaged 377 yards of total offense per game.

"How many times do you see the single wing?" Hill asked. "We had to get films from colleges and other schools to figure out how to defend the single wing. We're finding out things real quick."

Nine offensive starters return from last year's team, including junior quarterback Nick Smith (school-record 13 touchdown passes) and senior running back Nelson Stickley (1,836 rushing yards; school-record 28 touchdowns). Six players caught at least one pass last year--all six are back. Eleven players recorded at least two carries--nine of those players are back.

"The offense they run is a strange offense," said Mark Panchura, a senior defensive tackle at Potomac Falls. "That makes it harder to read. But they have such good players and such depth; that's the difference. Their offense is just part of it."

* The players: Senior Andrew Hoffman, a 6-5, 227-pound defensive tackle, has committed to the University of Virginia. Senior tight end Joe Larson (6-3, 215), who was named first-team all-state last year, is considered one of the top recruits in Virginia.

Stickley, Larson, Skinner and Smith earned first-team all-Liberty District honors; senior defensive back Mike McDermott was second team, and junior offensive linemen Brad Sisson and Donnie Kressley were honorable-mention picks.

"We have so many good football players that we don't have to have guys go both ways," Park View Coach Mickey Thompson said. "We have 22 starters, which is pretty rare for a AA team. That really helped us last year."

* The defense: Last year's defense, often overlooked, gave up an average of only 15 points per game. The Patriots have switched to a more aggressive scheme this season, and Thompson thinks Park View could end up a better team on defense than on offense.

* The coaching staff: Thompson is entering his 10th year as the Patriots' head coach and has a career record of 61-38. Only one other Northwestern District coach, Loudoun Valley's Mike Barton, has been the head coach at his school longer than Thompson has been at Park View.

"Our coaches put so much time and effort into the team," Larson said. "People want to be a part of that. They want to work hard. The coaches won't let us go into a game unprepared."

All that's left now is for the district games to begin. The Patriots dominated AAA Commonwealth District Sherando, 48-0, on Friday in their season opener; Northwestern District play begins Sept. 24, when Park View faces defending district champion Liberty.

"I think it's Handley, Loudoun County, Loudoun Valley and then us," Thompson said. "We're the new people. We have to prove ourselves."