Willie Forsythe, the team's center, had a problem: his game jersey was torn, an unwanted reminder of the team's first loss of the football season two days earlier.

If this were a Division I school, a shredded mesh jersey probably would be replaced during the game. But this is Montgomery College-Rockville.

"See if your mom can do something with it," Coach Phil Martin told his center. "We'll get some new jerseys, but not till next year."

A moment later, Martin said to a visitor, "I give them their game gear at the beginning of the year. They wash and dry it. It's just a fact of life, and a lot of schools are the same way."

If they seem a bit tattered around the edges, no matter. There's no need to pity the Fightin' Knights, who play their final game of the season Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at home against Harford Community College.

A program that was disrupted by the firing of its coach just a month before the 1982 season, in which the team finished 1-9, is flourishing again. Last year, the Knights went 6-3-1 and shared the Central Atlantic Conference championship, with Martin winning coach of the year honors. The 1985 squad is 6-1-2 and was ranked 14th nationally among junior colleges before its loss two weeks ago to Westchester (N.Y.) Community College.

Fullback Brendon Carmody, a Walter Johnson High School graduate, has been at Montgomery-Rockville through it all.

"I played in that 1-9 season, three years ago, but my grades were really bad," Carmody said. "I didn't play the next year (1983) because I felt it more important to get my grades up. In 1984, I was in a car accident just before the start of the season and cut up my leg pretty bad.

"It turns out that I'm glad I did come back. It's a complete turnaround -- the coaching staff, the players, the support from the school . . . and my grades are good."

Carmody's situation also points out the uncertainty junior college coaches face in knowing just who will be on the field when practice starts in August. Some high school players know they don't have the physical ability to play at a four-year school. Others hold out hope of a scholarship offer until midsummer before realizing one isn't coming, and deciding on a junior college.

"I can't blame them," said Martin, who has taught in the school's department of visual communication technology for 14 years and been coach for 3 1/2. "I just say that this is a good alternative. Others don't have the grades or the physical size, and for those reasons, they'll commit right away."

Winning has made the selection process easier, although Martin said he recruits any good player because depth is an annual problem.

"JC ball has a history of having guys who do not have the grades, the size, or are troublemakers," Martin said. "JC ball has a black eye imagewise. But we can be picky these days because we're getting some quality athletes. I don't have to take the troublemakers and I refuse to."

Six players from last year's team went on to play at four-year schools.

"I'm relatively happy," Martin said. "I took over a program that the school seriously considered dropping, and we're back to being a national contender."