Success came a year ahead of schedule for Bowie High School's soccer team.

"We're about one year ahead of what my predictions were two years ago," said second-year coach Rick Kirkland, a former junior varsity coach at Bowie. "I said by the time these guys were seniors they would be contenders. I was wrong."

Bowie (12-0), ranked No. 1 in the area and No. 3 nationally, opens the Maryland 4A regional playoffs this afternoon, hosting Suitland (7-4) at 3. The Bulldogs breezed past the Rams, 10-0, Friday in the final regular season game for each.

Bowie has won five state championships, in 1978, '82, '83, '86 and '87.

This year's team starts six juniors, many of whom began playing as freshmen for Kirkland's junior varsity.

Nine starters returned from last year's sophomore-laden team that reached the semifinals of the 4A tournament before falling to eventual state champion Whitman.

Kirkland credits the improvement of this year's club to a more high-charged offense. "That was our problem last year," he said. "Although we scored quite a bit, our attack was a problem."

To sharpen it, Kirkland instituted rigorous shooting drills for every practice. The hard work has paid off. Better than 50 percent of Bowie's shots have been on goal, and nearly half of those have ended up in the net. Bowie has 71 goals, almost six per game.

The midfield keys the attack. Bowie sets up with four junior halfbacks who have played together since they were 8. During the spring club season, all play for the Bethesda Mustangs, who finished third in a national tournament last season.

Junior midfielder Mark Jonas, who also plays for the under-17 national team, orchestrates the attack. He has stepped forward from his halfback position and become a more integral part of the offense this season, scoring 14 goals. Juniors Dave Briles, Andy Moore (nine goals) and Todd Hicks round out the corps of halfbacks. Senior forward Seth Brannon has nine goals from his forward position.

"I have a bigger role on this year's team," said Jonas. "Last year I was playing well and not scoring. This year I am playing well and scoring."

He is getting solid support from the defensive unit which includes an entire back line that returned from last year. Seniors Matt Hoskins, Andy Dondero and Greg Zweibel (stopper), and junior sweeper Gregg Sexton, form the nucleus that has yielded only seven goals this season.

Filling the goalkeeper slot has been a concern since the start of the season. Donnie Zukowski, who was expected to be the starting goalkeeper, was killed last summer in a car accident. Before the season started, the No. 2 candidate for the position, Jason Spring, was declared academically ineligible. Senior Blake Hunter eventually won the starting job and has been more than adequate

The team has worn black armbands since the start of the season in memory of Zukowski. Many of the players admitted that the late goalkeeper has been an important source of motivation.

"We always think about him," said Dondero. "On a game day, we just think that if we need to find something more we can reach down inside and think about him."

There have been other motivations driving the team.

"{Zukowski} was a close friend to a lot of us," said Sexton. "But it's part of a larger package. We are trying to get some respect for our team and our school. . . . There were a lot of great teams here in the 1980s that really dominated. I don't think they got enough recognition."

Bowie started the season ranked 10th nationally. Since defeating Oakland Mills, 2-0, in their opener, the Bulldogs have continued their steady climb.

For the most part, Bowie has rolled through the regular season, shutting out No. 9 Severna Park, the Anne Arundel 4A champion, and No. 12 Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, complacency from its lofty rankings did not show until Bowie had to come from behind to defeat Northwestern, 2-1, in two overtimes last week. The Wildcats are the only team to come within a goal of Bowie.

The recognition "has affected us some," said Jonas. "We have to get that out of our head. It showed against Northwestern. We played horrible."

A successful title drive this season would move Bowie into an elite category. The Bulldogs and Wilde Lake both have five state titles to their credit. Oakland Mills tops the list with six.