Nigerians take their field hockey very seriously. When their men's team won the JFK Memorial tournament last year after three consecutive runner-up finishes, they "celebrated more than any other team ever has" in the tournament's 23-year history, said one official.

It's also hugely significant for Washington area teams to perform well at the Lincoln Memorial fields.

Said Caz Pereira, 21, of the Washington Capitols, "It's very important."

Pereira, who was on the East team at this summer's Olympic Festival, said, "Since we're local, we want to do well."

But the Fighting Haddocks, the lone entry from Halifax, Nova Scotia, come to Washington each year to this major international meet to play in every sense of the word.

"We come to have a good time," said Mario DeMello, 37, a halfback. "With 16 men's teams, it gets quite physical and the fun side is the 16 women's teams. If nothing else, we'll make friends. Our attitude is we come here to socialize. But when we get on the field, it's 100 percent."

Very often their best players do not attend. It's "whoever can afford it and has the time off," DeMello said. Yet they manage perennially to put together a high level of play, making it to the semifinals each of the last two years before being eliminated by the Nigerians.

They even have a song: "Oh, we're the Fighting Haddocks that you've heard so much about/ Mothers lock their daughters up whenever we're about . . ." It gets worse.

Jeff Dorman, Glenn Reed and Robert Leeds sang it to two late- arriving teammates Friday night, "the only ones who could afford to fly," said Reed, the goalie, a self-employed computer consultant. The rest of the team drove 22 hours straight and by game time 8:30 yesterday morning, had yet to sleep.

One of five teams in Halifax, the Haddocks practice once a week with the rest of the league. By comparison, the Indian entry, Air India, whose members are either sponsored by or work for the airline, practices up to six hours a day.

The Haddocks are known for their antics. Last year, the team wore baldhead masks during the presentations and warmups for the semifinal against the Nigerians.

The 16 men's and 16 women's teams played round robins in pools of four teams yesterday.

"Most of the teams played on an equal level," said official S. Singh Bajwa. "So it will be a test of endurance for two days."

As anticipated, the Nigerian entry, Union Bank and Air India emerged from yesterday's rounds as the men's favorites, each winning three shutouts.

In the women's games, Stuyvesant of Katonah, N.Y., and local entry Southeast each outscored three opponents by a combined 7-0 to become favorites for today's championship.