Potomac was in limbo last year when it finished the regular season 5-5 and needed to wait a week to find out whether it qualified for the playoffs. The Panthers continued to practice, but the extra sessions were in vain when North Stafford earned the berth instead.

That extra work -- and the frustration at being so close -- might pay off this season. Potomac returns a wealth of experience, and a host of skill position players, including Mike Vann and Michael Plater. Another Mike, Mike McClain, has dibs on the quarterback spot after taking over the position last year when Anthony Arellano got hurt in the season opener. The players who scored 19 of the team's 28 touchdowns are back.

"We were real disappointed after last year," said Coach Ben Stutler, whose team saw eight-game series winning streaks end against Woodbridge and Osbourn. "We really felt as a team we lost games we should have never lost. We're kind of excited to get back out on the field and take care of business ourselves and not wait around and see what other people do."

The Panthers, who went 20-4 in 2000 and '01, have been inconsistent the past two seasons. Seven times they've scored 20 or more points in a game; on six occasions, they were shut out. The conquered opponents the past two years went 21-50.

After this season, Potomac is likely to rejoin the other eastern Prince William County schools in the Cardinal District, assuming that proposed Virginia High School League recommendations are adopted.

Running back Mike Vann (10), the top returning rusher and receiver, and quarterback Mike McClain accounted for 16 touchdowns in 2003.