One of the best-kept secrets in local high school football this year is McLean's 8-0 record. After years of being the butt of ugly sports jokes, the 13th-ranked Highlanders have the distinction of being the surprise of 1980.

Tonight they face their biggest game of the season against 10th-ranked Madison (8-0) for the Great Falls District title and a berth in the Northern Region playoffs.

The '70s weren't kind to the Fairfax County school. At one point, the school, which has an excellent academic reputation, was mired in a 27-game losing streak.

"There were a lot reasons for the school's decline in athletics," said McLean Athletic Director Roger Cole. "Our enrollment dropped from about 2,000 to about 1,400, making us one of the smallest schools in the county. This is a transient community and we lose a lot of kids. And O'Connell (a private Catholic school) takes a lot of our good Catholic athletes.

"Some of the people in the community may feel academics is more important than athletics but we have won some championships over the years."

Forgotten are the Highlanders' successful football years in the '50s and '60s. What most folks remember is the long losing streak that finally ended with a 25-6 victory over Herndon in the last game of the '76 season. The team finished 5-5 the next year but reverted to its losing ways in '78 and '79, finishing 2-8 and 1-9, respectively.

Despite having 26 lettermen return, 18 of them starters, McLean wasn't expected to do more than show up for its 10 games this year. But the Highlanders and innovative Coach Kurt Lindstrom had other ideas.

"I felt we could go 7-3 if we got off to a good start," said Lindstrom, in his second season at McLean after working at Fairfax, Robinson and W.T. Woodson for the past 16 years. "If we got a couple of breaks, then I felt we could do even better. The kids worked hard in the offseason and, sure, we've had a lot of luck. I realized McLean used to be the laughingstock of football out here (Virginia). It's time the community enjoyed a bit of success."

McLean, which scored only 60 points in '79, has already scored 148. But the players say the most important points of the season came in the second half of the opener against Stuart.

"We were down 10-0 at the half," said McLean's superb safety, Karl Buckwalter, who has made seven interceptions. "We just got mad and came out and took it to them. And at that moment we knew we could win. Last year, we just didn't have it, this year we do.

"As far as the talk about all the kids here being smart, well, I don't know about that," Buckwalter said. "It helps to have brains on the team and we have some players who have high averages. I have a 3.4 (grade point average) and our quarterback John Hiemstra has a perfect 4.0 and has a good shot at being valedictorian."

Hiemstra, a 6-foot, 175-pound senior, would rather talk about McLean's chances of being the top team in the area rather than his No. 1 standing in the senior class.

"I'm glad to be on a team with smart players but I don't think we're any smarter than any other team," said Hiemstra, who has thrown for seven touchdowns and run for two more. "The coach calls all the plays but I have a free hand to change them when I want. We do call a lot of audibles at the line."

Hiemstra has been able to vary his calls because of running backs Steve Galles (seven touchdowns) and Kevin Mank (seven) along with receiver Ray Oddono (five).

"These kids are smart but are also good football players," said Lindstrom. "We haven't blown anyone out and probably won't. Right now, we're very satisfied with winning."