A sign in the coaches' dressing room in the Wootton High School locker room reads, "Dreams + Hard Work = Championships." Sometime before this season, someone sneaked into the room and placed a "90" sticker over the equal sign. That alteration may prove to be prophetic -- Wootton is 7-0, the best start in the school's 21-year history.

There's an air of excitement tempered by cool confidence at Wootton these days. After going 2-8 just two years ago, the team looks expectantly toward its first state championship since 1978.

"When we come out on the field now, we expect to win instead of second-guessing ourselves," team co-captain Ryan Kuhl said. "We're used to winning and if we don't, everyone takes it real hard. But that hasn't happened this year."

The nucleus of the team is the seniors, who as sophomore junior-varsity players compiled an 8-1 record and won the Montgomery County championship. In fact, that group -- which includes Kuhl, quarterback Mike Mehok, halfbacks Kyle Horlacher and Messay Hailemariam, center Chris DeSena and guard William Flint -- has lost four games since it's been in high school.

Unlike other undefeated teams in the area, the Patriots usually don't overwhelm opponents. The strength of the team is a well-prepared defense that has allowed six points a game. This despite the loss of co-captain linebacker Cornelius Hayes in the second week of the season. He went down with a knee injury against Rockville and spent four days in the hospital. After the 14-0 triumph, Coach Bob Hampton and several players sneaked into the hospital to give Hayes the game ball.

The offense, which has scored more than three touchdowns in a game just once this season, relies on a group of talented, if not extraordinary, players. Injury has hurt that unit too, with Mehok, another co-captain, twisting an ankle last week against Sherwood. He may be out for the season.

"We don't have any real superstars," Hampton acknowledged. "But the kids have a great desire and they play together and stick together as a team."

Wootton, it seems, brings a new hero to each game. Against Walter Johnson, it was Kuhl, whose 2 1/2 sacks sealed a 37-7 victory. For the season, Kuhl leads the team with 5 1/2 sacks.

Hayes's injury the next week at Rockville inspired the team to its first shutout and Marlon Evans returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown. Evans has returned three punts for touchdowns this year.

The third week of the season at Gaithersburg, several heroes showed up in a game in which Wootton needed as many as it could get. Inexperienced Jon Bernstein, just 5 feet 6 and 165 pounds, filled in for Hayes and played solidly, Horlacher rushed a career-high 138 yards, and Geoff Pearce kicked the first three field goals of his life in a 9-3 win.

The next week against Quince Orchard, Mehok had his best game of the season, completing 10 of 19 passes. Pearce returned a fourth-quarter fumble for a touchdown and the defense shut down the Cougars' running game for a 21-7 victory.

Mehok connected with Evans for a touchdown and Shawn Thomas raced for a 65-yard score as Wootton recorded its second shutout, 14-0, over Einstein in the fifth week.

Against Wheaton, defensive end Allan Dinerman recovered three fumbles, including a 55-yarder and 97-yarder for a touchdown to down the Knights, 22-6.

Last week against Sherwood, the Patriots held their breath through their closest game. Defensive end Allen Dinerman and goal-line-only player David Schugar combined to stop Sherwood's Randy Trivers on a last-second two-point conversion to escape with a 20-19 win. Thomas rushed for 103 yards and quarterback Jon Ridgeway, filling in for Mehok, led the team to what proved to be the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"We have enough variety that whatever they take away from us, we can go on to the next guy or the next attack," Hampton said.

Tuesday, after practice, Hampton gathered his team around him and spoke softly, but confidently. "A couple of years ago we were David trying to knock Goliath off," he said. "Now we're on top and they're trying to get us."

Somewhere in that crowd, whoever it was who put up that "90" sticker knew he was right.