Last year, Fairfax missed making the Virginia AAA Northern Region football playoffs because it was over the enrollment limit for small schools by four students and the team's record wasn't good enough to qualify among bigger schools.

No wonder Coach Francis Dall welcomed the Virginia High School League's new alignment.

"This new format gives the smaller schools a chance and keeps the season interesting until the end," said Dall, in his fifth season. "Now the big schools have their championship and the smaller schools have a championship. We were four students over the cutoff so we had to be grouped with the larger schools in our region and our 8-2 record wasn't good enough to qualify for the playoffs. But we are in the playoffs this year and the school is very excited about it."

Last year's playoff format was based on an enrollment figure of 1,400. Schools over that enrollment number participated with the larger schools in the playoffs.

The smaller division playoff format included schools with poor records. For instance, George Mason was 0-10 but made the playoffs because there weren't any other schools in the small division.

This year each of the four regions is divided in half by enrollment, the top half grouped in one division, the bottom half in the other. In the Northern Region, the 13 schools in terms of enrollment are in Division 6 and the other 12 are in Division 5.

Of course, making the playoffs wasn't automatic for the Rebels. Fairfax had enjoyed fine seasons in the past few decades but was often denied a playoff berth by district foe Annandale. The Rebels finished a game behind Annandale in the Potomac District this season, but because the Atoms are grouped in the larger division, Fairfax has its first playoff berth in its 52-year history.

"That's a little deceiving since there were no playoffs back then," Dall said. "We have had good records in the past but seemed to always get edged out by Annandale. One team here finished 8-0-2 and didn't make the playoffs. We are glad to be there, it's just too bad it's Thanksgiving weekend, some people won't be here."

Fairfax not only made the playoffs but is one victory away from advancing to the state semifinal. The Rebels won seven of their last eight games, including last week's 19-13 triumph over Yorktown in a region semifinal game.

Fairfax (8-3) will now host defending region champion Marshall (10-1) for the Division 5 title and for a state semifinal slot Friday at 1:30 p.m.

"We're playing a quality team in Marshall. Like any good team, they are solid everywhere and we just have to play a solid game," Dall said. "They didn't get to be 10-1 making mistakes."

Fairfax didn't win eight games playing poorly, either.

The Rebels, a dismal 0-10 two years ago, regrouped to finish 8-2 last year. The defensive unit that has allowed only 113 points in 11 games depends on all-District tackle Emilio Martinez, end Joe Drummond, linebacker Tim Hubbard and cornerback Ted Whitney, all seniors.

Offensively, the team comprises mainly underclassmen. Junior Randy Belknap, sophomore Bryant McMillan and junior Frankie Smith have divided rushing duties and junior David Bedwell has done a good job at quarterback since taking over six games ago.

Fairfax lost to Edison, 17-8, in its opener; to Yorktown, 13-3, two weeks later, and to Annandale, 26-14.

"We've won seven of eight and led Annandale with three minutes to play," Dall said. "I think when we beat Chantilly {25-14} and played Annandale tough, we discovered we were a good team. I think we surprised people in the Annandale game, coming that close. We had experienced players coming back and felt we would do very well."

One reason Dall feels his team is still sharp 12 weeks after the season began is because of his summer practice sessions.

"We didn't have many two-a-day sessions in the beginning, we didn't want the kids to get tired of football," he said. "We've been playing a long time and we aren't tired yet."