Howard and William and Mary, two soccer teams that at midseason were seemingly headed nowhere, will meet at Howard at 1 p.m. today in the South Atlantic region championship, the opening round of the NCAA postseason tournament.

Howard (9-2-2) finished the regular season with five straight victories, including a 4-2 decision over the Indians on Nov. 5, and the top ranking in the region. William and Mary (13-6-1) has the second-most defeats of any club in the 20-team national tournament (defending champion Southern Illinois-Edwardsville is 10-7-2), but rallied with a crucial 1-0 victory over Old Dominion in the Virginia state championship Nov. 17.Most observers had expected ODU or West Virginia to receive the other regional bid before William and Mary's victory.

"Both of us are coming on strong after shaky starts," said William and Mary Coach Al Albert. "Howard lost to Navy (2-1) in its first game, and James Madison tied them in their third game. We had no injuries the first 10 games, but then the roof caved in on us and we lost four starters. The Old Dominion game last week was the first time since Sept. 28 that we had all 22 players in uniform."

"We have been playing very well lately," said Howard Coach Lincoln Phillips. "Even after we lost to Davis and Elkins and were tied by George Mason (giving the Bison a 4-2-2 record), nobody gave up."

There are several reasons for Howard's resurgence. A young defense has jelled around two freshman, fullback Michael McPherson and goalie Gilbert McPherson (no relation), and sophomore fullback Bancroft Gordon. The team began playing hard all 90 minutes, not just in the second half, as it had early in the year. Most important, all-South center-forward Sylvanus Oriakhi (six goals despite continual double-teaming) began getting help on offense.

Senior forward Ian Gage, who had been benched by Phillips several times for inconsistent play, steadied the offense and gave it direction that had been lacking. Equally as significant, junior Jacques Ladouceur started to find the goal and finished as the team's leading soccer with six goals and three assists.

"There was no question he could play," Phillips said. "It's just that Jacques was new to the team, and it took some time for him to fit in."

William and Mary is led by junior John McManus, whose school-record 27 goals is almost half his team's total (55). Albert has recruited extensively in the Washington area: Eleven players are from Northern Virginia and one (Churchill High School's Neil Sherman) is from Montgomery County. Mark Gardiner, a junior forward from Fall Church, is the second-leading scorer with six goals.

"There's no doubt in my mind how good Howard is," said Albert. "Their speed and explosiveness off the mark makes them without question the best offensive team in the region. Anybody in the lineup, save the goalkeeper, can score."