After an eight-year absence, Phelps High School football came back a winner. The Panthers, behind tough defense and a big first-half drive, beat Riverdale Baptist, 20-0, last night at Fletcher's Field in Riverdale.

"We did well for the first time," Phelps Coach Steve Powell said. "We made some typical first-time mistakes. We had to open with the reputation of losing. Now the monster is dead. Now we can go on and progress."

Phelps, an Interhigh League vocational school, dropped athletics after the 1982-83 school year. Football was brought back for this season and Powell, who had last coached the team in 1981, returned with it.

Powell said togetherness played a role in the victory.

"A lot of the fellows come from poor backgrounds," he said. "Last night the parents had a cookout and we got a lot closer."

Riverdale Baptist, on the other hand, had graduated a number of players from last year. The Crusaders' roster listed three seniors and seven freshmen. Riverdale also had to go against a Phelps line that featured eight players over 200 pounds.

Riverdale Coach Al Nagy, however, didn't think that was a factor.

"Really, size didn't hurt us," he said. "We had some young players in the defensive secondary and they got burned on a few plays. The game was played on the line of scrimmage. I was really proud of the shape this team was in."

Phelps got its first score on the third play from scrimmage. Riverdale quarterback Keith Sibille tried to lateral the ball, but threw behind his target. Gerald Grant scooped up the fumble and returned the ball 74 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead.

Phelps's defense continued to work well through the first half. Riverdale did get a drive going and moved down to the Panthers 25. But the defense held and the Crusaders were forced to give back the ball after an incomplete pass on fourth down.

Sibille hurt his right shoulder in the first quarter and was replaced by Eric Hammett for the rest of the game. Sibille remained on the sideline with ice on his shoulder.

"I was impressed with Eric," Nagy said.

With the ball back, Phelps's offense did its part with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard pass from Taiwon Gales to Jonathan McCray to make it 12-0. Two plays that set up the score were a 38-yard run by Barry Cobbs and a 30-yard pass from Gales to McCray. The final touchdown came in the fourth quarter on a 25-yard run by Reginald Burell, and a conversion run by Cobbs completed the scoring.

"We've been working so hard to overcome mistakes," said Powell, who was Interhigh coach of the year in 1981 after the Panthers completed a 4-5 season. "The game was a confidence-builder. We have come a long way."