From 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Naval Academy, it's activity time and midshipmen are everywhere in their issue white T-shirts and blue shorts, jogging along the Severn, crossing the pedestrian bridge to the soccer fields, setting their sails at the marina.

Inside renovated McDonough Hall, at the airy, bright Lejeune swimming pool, 22 midshipmen cross the 20-yard width of the pool holding gallon milk jugs filled with water above their heads.

Welcome to the Navy water polo program, and the best team in the East. Last year, the Midshipmen won the eastern championships, sending them to the NCAA championships. In collegiate water polo, there are only two regions -- everything from here to Colorado is the East. At the national championships, the Midshipmen finished sixth, the top non-California team.

But this is a team with a distinct West Coast look, with a nucleus of eight players from that hotbed of the sport.

"Let's just say that if I had no opportunity to recruit from California, I'd have to do a whole lot more coaching," said third-year head coach Mike Schofield, who was an outstanding player at the University of Pittsburgh.

Senior Tom Temple of Balboa Island, Calif., an honorable mention all-America last year, and junior Tom Popp of San Jose, a member of the U.S. junior national team who represented the East at this summer's Olympic Festival, guide the team. During a two-hour session recently, Popp and Temple were unabashedly vocal, admonishing and advising their teammates.

Temple was voted team captain this year, not an empty title at Navy. The position carries extra privileges, he explained, and is considered a military rank.

"It's hard to say why I was voted team captain; probably because I'm the most vocal," he said.

Temple led Corona Del Mar High School to the California state championship and was a high school all-America. He said he always wanted to be a naval officer and would have chosen the academy even if water polo was not a varsity sport.

"A lot of people had problems with that when I was leaving high school," said Temple, who hopes to be assigned to special warfare, the Navy's commandos, upon graduation. "I didn't want a normal school; I wanted to be an officer."

Temple, who is fast and crafty in the pool, set a school record last year with 75 goals and 94 points.

"I'm always looking to make the team as strong as possible," he said. "This is the weakest class of freshmen I've seen and it's been hard to get them part of the team," he said. "It's a challenge. That's my main concern. I've never sought personal glory. You don't get that in water polo."

After crossing the pool 12 times with the jugs, using only their legs for propulsion, the 30 players did wind sprints and ball-handling drills. Then, for the next 90 minutes, in teams of two to six, they raced up and down the length of the 30-meter pool, alternately trying to score or defend. One drill lasted a half hour because it was not executed to Schofield's specifications. Doing his best Bobby Knight imitation, he kicked a chair, exasperated at what he considered a dumb move. Water polo is a thinking man's sport, he said.

Indeed, while squads were waiting their turn, teammates discussed the what-ifs of a particular move or play. Popp often asked Schofield for an explanation and candidly offered his. Rank is dropped during practice.

"Water polo is an outlet from everything else here, from the academics and the military stuff," said Popp. "It's fun time."

It's also a grueling time. By 5:30, when most of the rest of the Navy varsity and intramural teams are in the showers, the water polo team has completed a total of 4,000 to 5,000 meters of pool work before heading off to the weight room.

While the upperclassmen further exercised their aching muscles with weights, the freshmen jumped back into the pool and scrimmaged the team from Mary Washington College. Coach Paul Richardson had driven his team two hours from Fredericksburg, Va., to observe Navy's practice.

The program at Mary Washington is in its infancy, yet Richardson said he has already seen a vast improvement. George Washington University also fields a varsity program. The Colonials' program received attention two years ago when a female player, Kelly Flipse, joined the team.

"A girl could never play here," said Schofield. "I'm not being sexist or anything, but it wouldn't be fair. Men are stronger, faster. There's also a big difference between the programs. Here, there's a tradition and history."

Tradition is a fundamental concept at the Naval Academy. It's also why Schofield expects to improve on last year's record, even though Navy players spend much less time in the water than those on other top teams because of academy obligations.

"This program sells itself with tradition," said Schofield. "People recognize that it's a school that takes it seriously. It's a state of mind that these kids have here with or without the sport.

"It's their attitude here. We were fortunate enough last year and are this year that the leadership from the upperclassmen is very good. It's becoming so that when the guys become seniors they expect it to be their best year."