The Maryland locker room was filled with distraught faces late Christmas night after the Terrapins lost to the University of Washington, 21-20, in the Aloha Bowl. But there is no doubt that Maryland's football program is much better off than it was a year ago.

Last year, there was no bowl game. The team had finished with a 4-6-1 record. Coach Jerry Claiborne was leaving for Kentucky. Recruiting was at a standstill.

This year, most people expected Maryland to finish fourth or fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and under .500 again with one of the six toughest schedules in the nation.

But the Terrapins finished second in the ACC. They beat North Carolina, Miami and Duke during a seven-game winning streak. Their losses were all to teams that will almost certainly finish in the top 10 -- Penn State, Washington, Clemson and West Virginia -- and the total margin of defeat was 12 points.

Those close losses may provide optimism for next year, but they also leave questions about why Maryland was unable to win so many games after coming so close.

"Taking everything into consideration, I think we had a great season," said quarterback Boomer Esiason, "but I'm sick and tired of saying we should have (won)."

Coach Bobby Ross also realizes Maryland cannot continue to come up short if it is to be among the nation's top 10. "We've got to win these close ones," he said.

Ross hopes recruiting will eliminate, or at least minimize, the distance between Maryland and the teams that win by a point.

There are quality players returning next season -- among them, the record-setting Esiason, 1,000-yard rusher Willie Joyner, receivers Russell Davis and Greg Hill, linebacker Eric Wilson and place-kicker Jess Atkinson.

Atkinson, an all-ACC kicker, will be impatient for next year. He couldn't keep from crying after missing a 32-yard field goal with 3:49 remaining that would have given Maryland a 23-14 lead.

Instead, Washington drove 80 yards in 16 plays as quarterback Tim Cowan completed nine of 13 passes, including an 11-yard touchdown throw to Anthony Allen for the tying points with six seconds left. The game in Aloha Stadium drew a crowd of 30,055.

Cowan, the bowl's most valuable offensive player, had the best game of his five-year career, completing 33 of 53 passes for 350 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Allen caught eight passes, including all three that went for touchdowns, for 152 yards.

Several Maryland players performed well. Esiason completed 19 of 32 passes for 250 yards, despite a strong pass rush in the first half.

Senior tight end John Tice caught six passes for 85 yards. Senior tailback John Nash had 52 yards receiving and 44 yards rushing, and had a key play in the 86-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that put Maryland ahead, 20-14.

Defensive linemen Mike Corvino and Mark Duda made some spectacular tackles, but the four-man rush provided almost no pressure. Ross said Cowan's three- and four-step drop backs would not allow the Terrapins to blitz.

Today, the team returned home, where the coaches will immediately start preparations for next year, which offers a schedule even tougher than 1982's.

The Terrapins will open with Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Pitt, and will finish with North Carolina, Auburn and Clemson. There will be close games again, and Maryland must win some or be content to be a team on the fringes.