Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Annandale so dominated Northern Region football that the Fairfax school was nicknamed Notre Dame Jr. The Big Red Machine perenially made the playoffs and opponents knew the road to the Virginia state final ran through Annandale.

But from 1982 to 1986, even though the Atoms finished with 8-2 marks in two of those seasons, they failed to qualify for the playoffs, and it appeared Coach Bob Hardage had lost his Midas touch. Not really. This year, the team finished 7-3, with two of those losses by a touchdown, and earned a playoff spot.

"Does it feel good to be back in the playoffs? You bet it does," Hardage said.

Hardage's Potomac District champion team will face the hottest team in the region, 13th-ranked West Potomac (8-2), at Annandale tonight in a Northern Region District 6 semifinal at 8.

"They are a tremendous football team and in the last few weeks have been destroying people," said Hardage, whose team played the Wolverines six days ago. "They destroyed us." Annandale and key rusher Julio Lacayo had no success against West Potomac and became West Potomac's sixth straight shutout victim, 7-0.

Despite losing all-purpose performer Ray Crittenden with a separated shoulder six weeks ago, the Atoms' running game has prospered with linemen Chris Evangueledi and Eric Hildre providing running room for Lacayo (1,068 yards, 15 touchdowns).

When the Atoms were dominating the region, Hardage had productive backs and consistent, tough defenses that often provided big plays and turnovers. The Atoms have allowed 90 points in 10 games but only 42 in their last seven games.

Hardage must find a way to solve the Wolverines' agressive defense, keyed by All-Met tackle James Pearson, end Reggie Ware and linebacker Jimmy Arrington. Since losing to Robinson, 34-0, three weeks ago, the Wolverines have outscored their six foes, 197-0.

West Potomac's other loss was to top-ranked T.C. Williams, 21-7, in the season opener. The Wolverines, who have made numerous changes since that effort, are hoping for another chance at Williams (10-0).

The Titans, who have supplanted Annandale as the region's top team, play Robinson (7-3) in the other District 6 semifinal Saturday at Williams at 1:30.

In the Northern Region District 5 semifinals, fifth-ranked Marshall (9-1) hosts Edison (5-5) and Yorktown (7-3) entertains Fairfax (7-3) Friday night at 8.

In a Northwest Region District 5 semifinal, fourth-ranked Courtland (9-1) hosts Salem (9-1) Friday night at 8.

In the Northwest District Region 6 semifinals, 15th-ranked Fauquier (8-2) hosts Osbourn Park (5-5) and Pulaski County (8-2) plays at Woodbridge (8-2) Friday night at 8.

In a Virginia AA Region 2 District 6 final, Loudoun Valley (8-3) plays at Charlottesville (9-2) Friday night at 8.