Erika Sklar smiled as she went over some information with three of her W.T. Woodson gymnasts at a recent practice.

"To qualify for regionals you have to be in the top two [at districts], and I think we will," the Woodson coach explained. Then, after a beat, she continued: "I think we will win districts."

Another pause, then a big smile.

Sklar has a lot to smile about these days. The Cavaliers have come a long way in one year.

Twelve months ago, Woodson finished in last place at the Liberty District championships, scoring only 80.7 points, far behind district champion Langley's 149.425.

But this season, a quartet of freshmen with club gymnastics experience decided to join the high school squad, and a storybook last-to-first place tale was in the making.

Over the past 50 days -- since the Woodson season began Dec. 4 -- ninth-graders Lindsey Eigenbrode, Elena Helminiak, Marianne Le and Allison Pomeroy have transformed the Cavaliers' "Let's-have-fun-but-we're-probably-not-going-to-win-anything" attitude, turning Woodson into a bona fide contender that enters next Wednesday's 2003 Liberty District championships as the favorite.

Already this season the Cavaliers have defeated every team in the district except McLean, which they face tonight. In their five meets this season (all of which featured three, four or five competing teams), the Cavaliers have finished first three times and in second place twice. And the most encouraging sign is Woodson's four-event (balance beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercise) team score, which has increased at every meet, going from 128.9 in early December to 136.675 at their most recent outing.

Eigenbrode, Helminiak, Le and Pomeroy are the team's "all-arounders," meaning they compete on all four events (Woodson's other 10 members compete on specific individual events). First-year assistant coach Julia Taylor, a former gymnast who also coaches at Capital Gymnastics Club, said she sees tremendous promise in these talented gymnasts.

"They're very self-motivating," Taylor said. "They've got discipline and a good sense of camaraderie and the team feeds off them. They're having fun, which is the goal of high school sports."

The Cavaliers have never advanced to the Northern Region meet as a team in six previous seasons under Sklar (a Woodson gymnast herself in the early 1990s), but that should change if Woodson continues to get beautiful beam routines from Eigenbrode, solid uneven bars performances from Le, graceful tumbling on floor from Helminiak and stellar vaulting from Pomeroy.

Eigenbrode, whom both coaches call the "backbone of our team," speaks in the softest of voices, not much louder than a whisper, but there is nothing meek about her acrobatics. She finished first in the all-around (35.25) in one meet and second at two others (35.70 and 35.15).

Le is a gymnast Taylor termed "our [uneven] bars queen." She finished second on bars at a tri-meet two weeks ago with 8.9, and followed that up with a third-place 8.6 at Woodson's most recent competition.

Helminiak and Pomeroy have been friends since kindergarten and trained together at Capital before recently giving up the demands of serious club competition. The coaches call Pomeroy the comedian of the bunch.

Helminiak bumped her beam score up to a season-high 9.0 at Woodson's last meet and said she is glad she put aside initial thoughts of not joining the squad.

"It's been good, being part of the team. I really didn't want to do this in the beginning," she said "but now that we're winning, it keeps me motivated."

Assistant coach Julia Taylor, right, works with freshman Lindsey Eigenbrode, who has helped W.T. Woodson to three first-place finishes this season.