Since starting the season 0-3, Gaithersburg has won three of four games, including last week's 16-14 victory over Whitman.

Despite their recent 3-1 stretch, the Trojans almost certainly will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996. But there are reasons for optimism about the future:

* Gaithersburg is just a few points from being in playoff contention. The Trojans lost to Churchill, 14-13, and to Thomas Johnson, 21-20.

* Only three of Gaithersburg's regular offensive starters are seniors -- every starter on the offensive line is a junior -- and on defense, the Trojans start a freshman and two juniors in the secondary, two juniors on the defensive line and one junior at linebacker.

"I sure wish we hadn't lost three in a row at the start of the season, but we're getting it together slowly but surely," Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart said. "They're improving."

Perhaps because of their youth and inexperience, the Trojans have leaned heavily on senior fullback/linebacker Andre Graham, who has started on Gaithersburg's defense for three years. Graham is the Trojans' leading rusher and tackler -- he had 28 tackles on his own in the Trojans' loss to Thomas Johnson earlier this year.

"People don't tend to look at 5-5 or 6-4 teams for all-stars, but if there are many better linebackers around, I'd like to see them," Kephart said. "I think hands down he's the best in the county, if not the D.C. area. He's fast, he's tough, he's strong, and probably his biggest asset is his intelligence. He's the brains of the outfit out there."

Graham has received interest from Akron, Kent and Marshall, among others.

Seneca Streaking

Seneca Valley is closing in on its 21st trip to the postseason, having won three straight games by a combined 104-28 since its lone setback of the season -- a two-point loss to Churchill.

The Screaming Eagles (6-1, 4-0) have played solid defense and have been balanced on offense during their recent stretch. In the last three games, senior quarterback Tyler Newberry has completed 28 of his 45 pass attempts for 418 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Senior tailback Quintin Cosby has rushed 63 times for 444 yards and eight touchdowns during that stretch.

Seneca Valley faces winless Kennedy this week before meeting second-ranked Northwest in the Battle for the King's Trophy -- the yearly clash between the Germantown schools.

Happy Returns

In a 27-24 loss to Northwest on Oct. 1, Damascus gave up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the first play of the game. A week later, in the Hornets' 26-20 victory over Quince Orchard, the Cougars returned a squib kick 80 yards to the Damascus 5-yard line to set up a score.

Because of those plays, Damascus Coach Dan Makosy made special teams a focal point in the week of practice before Friday's game against Sherwood. The extra work paid off as the Hornets limited the Warriors on returns and made two huge runbacks of their own in a 41-21 victory.

Damascus took a 14-7 lead when senior Travis Wertz returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. And after Sherwood went up 21-14, Damascus sophomore Tom Cosgrove returned a kickoff 72 yards to set up a score.

Catch Happy

Quince Orchard senior wide receiver Scot Riddell caught five passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns in the Cougars' 41-13 victory over Blair last Thursday. In the last four games, Riddell has caught 18 passes for 322 yards. . . .

Churchill's defense has received much of the credit for the Bulldogs' recent five-game winning streak, and deservedly so -- it has allowed just four points per game during the stretch. But the Bulldogs' offense has rolled up 64 points the past two weeks, led by senior quarterback Nick Scrivens. The first-year player has completed 17 of 31 pass attempts for 363 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in that span.

Churchill senior running back Kyle Smith has helped the Bulldogs to a five-game winning streak by totaling 399 yards and eight touchdowns this season.