Darkness had begun to spread across Spingarn High School's football field and only a handful of uninterested spectators were bothering to watch Bell and Phelps begin their football seasons last year. Nearly 3 1/2 hours, more than 30 penalties and a comedy of other errors later, the Interhigh League vocational schools settled for a 6-6 tie.

It was the closest either of the schools was to come to a victory. For them as well as for several other area schools, a tie can be a considered a significant victory.

At Phelps, where coach Mo Warren is forced to emphasize character building instead of the wishbone offense, football victories are virtually nonexistent. In 1975, Phelps was embarrassed by scores such as 86-0, 66-0, 58-0 (twice) and 46-0. At season's end, the ledger read: opponents 443, Phelps 0.

"We had 10th graders mainly and many of them had never played organized football before," said Warren, a Phelps alumnus. "But we'll get better with experience."

Last season, Phelps was still everybody's patsy. The outmanned Northeast Washington school surrendered 327 points, scored only twice. Its only victory was a 2-0 forfeit by Chamberlain.

Warren is even more enthusiastic this year.

"We have more experienced players and the kids have begun to come back to the vocational schools," he said. "And, for once, we have some size. You watch us."

Bell and Chamberlain, the city's other vocational schools, also have been blessed with more players since the board of education has stopped talking, at least temporarily, about abolishing their athletic programs.

"We had twice as many kids come out this year," said Bell coach Ed Torrence, whose team has scored three touchdowns in its last 15 games. "We'll open up a little, play more wide open. And stress positive thinking. The kids are very enthusiastic."

The adrenalin also is flowing at McLean. More than 60 boys showed up for practice the first day, compared to 27 a year ago. The Highlanders ended their season last year on a pleasant note, whipping Herndon, 25-6, to end a 27-game, three-year losing streak.

"Maybe things are finally beginning to swing back out way," said McLean coach Al Fish. "I hope so at least."

For schools like Parkdale, losing is a new experience. The Panthers ruled the Prince George'ss AA league, winning the title five times in seven years. Last season, Parkdale dipped to 1-9. So Pat Baker, like most of the other first-year coaches, has installed a new system and begun the tedious task of trying to convince his players they can win again.

It's not easy for the Warrens, Torrences and Fishs, or the players, to show up every Monday for practice after a humiliating defeat on Friday. But they do return, and the enthusiasm and optimism is still there.

"It was rough out there last year," said Nathaniel Randolph, a defensive back at Bell. "And it was tough coming back after those one-sided losses. I started not to play this year. But you always feel you can win the next one. At least, that's the attitude I have this season."

"We didn't expect to win many (last year)," said Phelps safety Greg Carson. "But we didn't expect to lose so bad either.

"I guess our biggest thrill last year was beating Chamberlain, 2-0, on our homecoming," added Carson. "It was nice to win a game and that was our last game of the year. But things will be different this season."

If not, there's always Chamberlain again at the end of the year.