Step onto the deteriorating track at High Point High School--or the tennis courts at Suitland or the baseball field at Surrattsville--and the biggest challenge facing those involved with high school athletics in Prince George's County quickly will become apparent: poor athletic facilities and a lack of funds to fix the problem.

It is not a new issue, but it is not an issue that is going to disappear in the future, either.

"We're quickly reaching an unsafe level [at athletic facilities at some schools] if we don't put any money in," said Owen Johnson, the county's supervisor of interscholastic athletics. "If we don't pay serious attention to the facilities, as their use increases, we'll be in trouble. But the money is not there."

Yet year after year, the county's coaches and athletes have managed to succeed in the face of adversity. Two county football teams--Eleanor Roosevelt and Forestville--won state titles this fall, four months after every school was forced to cut one paid football assistant coaching position in order to accommodate a 9 percent cut to the county's athletics budget.

The county's basketball programs, both boys and girls, are flourishing. Including private schools, seven boys teams, led by No. 1 Oxon Hill, and five girls teams, led by No. 2 Suitland, were ranked in The Post's Top 20 at the end of the year. Ten boys and 11 girls already have committed to play basketball for Division I schools.

At DeMatha High School, which boasts one of the premier high school athletic programs in the country, change awaits. Morgan Wootten, the nation's winningest high school basketball coach, has coached at the Hyattsville private school since 1956 and has become virtually synonymous with the school.

Wootten said in February that he hopes to coach three more seasons, then added in April that he was considering retirement when his son, Joe, was hired to take over O'Connell's program.

One thing is certain--whenever Wootten retires, it will impact not only DeMatha's program, but other schools as well.

For now, however, the most pressing issue is the quality of facilities at county public schools and the lack of funding for athletics. Over the summer, the Board of Education cut the county's athletic budget by 9 percent for the fiscal year 2000. Rather than cut existing sports like tennis, swimming and golf--an idea included in one proposal--several assistant coaching positions were cut and coaching salaries were reduced.

"The issue is going to be how the community is going to decide how to fund extracurricular activities in general," High Point athletic and activities director Ernie Welch said. "We're talking about fine arts, and band, and also athletics. Is anybody going to maintain the tennis courts, the football fields, the tracks?

"Can we retain quality teachers and coaches? The funding issue is paramount, and unfortunately I don't think that is a new issue. It will continue unless the public makes up its mind that something needs to be done."

Declining participation in some sports also is an issue. There are schools that do not field teams in sports such as soccer and wrestling, which are relatively popular throughout the rest of the Washington area. Other schools struggle to find enough players to fill varsity and junior varsity rosters in certain sports. Coaches and administrators say more students are working part-time, either out of necessity or choice, instead of playing sports.

Despite these problems, there are those who feel that high school athletics will continue to play an important role in the community.

"I think that high school sports will always be important, no matter what cuts are made, or what kind of money issues there are," Northwestern Athletic Director Joe Girardi said. "There will always be people who need high school sports. Once a kid gets connected to a school in a way other than just going to class, he or she becomes a more productive person because of that connection. Our athletes are some of the leaders in our school. High school sports will always be here."

CAPTION: Longtime DeMatha boys basketball coach Morgan Wootten has talked of retirement.

CAPTION: The county's athletic budget, which was trimmed by 9 percent, has little left over for maintenance of public high schools' facilities, including High Point's track (above) and Suitland's tennis courts. Despite thin funding, some area teams have excelled, including two state champions in football.