The American University soccer team returned to campus last night after suffering the disappointment of an eight-overtime loss to UCLA in the NCAA soccer final Saturday night in Seattle. But the Eagles were offered the succor of a school spirit generated by their near-championship year.

The team arrived about 20 minutes after red, white and blue bunting hanging on the Mary Graydon Center ignited from the heat of a building spotlight. After the flames were extinguished by campus security personnel, students again turned their attention to a video screen that showed highlights of the championship game.

University President Richard Berendzen, who had traveled to see the championship game in Seattle, appeared with the team and was greeted with chants of "We want a soccer field," and "AU, AU."

Coach Pete Mehlert received an ovation from the students for jesting that Berendzen "should call off the exams" to celebrate the occasion. And all-America Michael Brady spoke briefly and softly, thanking the school's athletic department and student body.

About 1,300 students had gathered on Saturday night in the Graydon Center around eight large television screens. Because the game was shown live, beginning at 10 p.m. Washington time, many fans experienced firsthand what the team faced in the distended Battle in Seattle: exhaustion.

"Even for the fans, this was a grueling experience," said Jennifer McCauley as she headed home to her dormitory at 2 a.m., just after the game ended.

At the beginning of the telecast, exuberant students cheered at every mention of American University and chanted, "AU, AU." They had sacrificed study hours the week before exams for the fun of new-found camaraderie.

"We just did not have school spirit, but we do now," said sophomore Lisa Grimpe. John Hancock felt that American's advance into the finals "brought something to AU that's been missing for a long time. It's beautiful."

Janet Laub said she had gotten up early and studied all day in order to watch the game. "I hope it doesn't go into overtime," she said in the second half. "Everyone has to study."

Though it went into eight overtimes, most of the crowd at the Graydon Center remained for the duration and tried to keep the spirt alive (and awake). But time took its toll, and fervor faded to fatigue. At the beginning of the third overtime, a student wearing a "Club A.U." sweatshirt groaned, "I'm an exhausted fan! Save me! I'm losing my voice, my mind . . . "

And as 2 a.m. approached, some top and bottom eyelids were -- like the game -- extremely close.

When the party ended for the Eagles on a UCLA goal, a lot of fists slammed on tables, and a lot of students shouted in disappointment. Then, spontaneously, everyone watching the game stood and applauded.