Harker Prep, a tiny Potomac high school, admits it made "beginner's mistakes" when over the course of two years it tried to turn its previously unranked basketball team into a national power.

After last season, the 28-year-old school quit the Washington Small Schools League and decided to play a higher caliber of basketball. Harker used overage players, athletes who had already graduated from other high schools, players in their fifth year of eligibility and players academically ineligible elsewhere, and the school quickly outgrew its traditional competition.

In less than two years, the team is 15-1, ranked No. 9 in USA Today's national poll and No. 2 in The Washington Post's metropolitan top 20.

But while Harker became nationally recognized, it was locally ostracized. Some area schools dropped Harker from their schedules this season; others refused to schedule it in the future. And -- despite reforms that Harker Headmaster Chris Kieffer and new coach Stu Vetter say are planned or are already are in place -- it is likely Harker will continue to suffer from the mistakes of the past.

Kieffer, 44, who doubled as the team's coach for part of last season, admits all the mistakes, but says he never would have predicted the hostility Harker has encountered from local public and private schools.

Kieffer and Vetter, who built a national basketball power in 15 seasons at Flint Hill in Falls Church, say that the independent school has now unilaterally adopted the eligibility rules of the Interstate Athletic Conference, a private local league that is well-respected athletically and academically.

"We are doing this because we no longer want to be the neighborhood pariah," said Kieffer, who one year ago approved admittance, eligibility and arranged benefactors to cover $6,300 tuitions for 6-foot-6 Stanley Wright, who had already graduated from Coolidge High, and 6-8 Donald Ford, who had been declared academically ineligible at Dunbar. Ford's tenure was brief; he soon stopped attending school and was dismissed.

IAC rules, like most area public school rules, make a student who turns 19 before Sept. 1 of the upcoming school year athletically ineligible. A student who has graduated from high school is athletically ineligible, regardless of his age or remaining eligibility.

The IAC allows an athlete five years from the start of his freshman year to complete four years of varsity eligibility. Playing on a junior varsity or freshman team does not count under IAC rules, although most other leagues and jurisdictions do count those seasons toward eligibility. This allows IAC athletes five years of eligibility, as long as they are not overage.

Yet, even with these ground rules, many teams do not want to play the Colonels. This season, only nine of Harker's 25 scheduled games are against metropolitan-area opponents. Five of its games were in a tournament in Las Vegas, four in a tournament in Hawaii.

Harker's team includes 7-3 junior Serge Zwikker, who is from the Netherlands; 6-2 guard Sam Short, who transferred from St. James in Hagerstown; Exree Hipp, a transfer from Ballou; and several other players from around the Beltway.

"If they called me tomorrow, I would not want to play them," said Athletic Director Jim Fegan of Georgetown Prep of the IAC. "I don't want to throw stones at them, but it is all so new. I am not sure where their program is headed. To me, the concept of community is important. If 90 percent of your school comes from Potomac, but only 10 percent of your basketball team does, that is not representative of your community."

Before this season, Metro Conference schools made an informal agreement not to play Harker because they did not want to play against fifth-year players. Montgomery County public school coaches made a similar agreement, partly spurred by charges from Kennedy High that Rasan Golatt, a sophomore guard at Harker, was recruited away from the public school in the middle of the 1989-90 season by Paul Fuqua, who coached for the second half of last season but was replaced by Vetter after the season ended.

"It is not a league rule" not to play Harker, said DeMatha Principal John Moylan. "But it was a gentleman's agreement. We felt it put our schools at a disadvantage."

Moylan said that a decision to play Harker in the future would go beyond Harker's adopting IAC rules.

"I would not like to play a school that offers full scholarships {not based on financial need}," said Moylan. "And if a school says you come here and we will find you a place to live, I find that distasteful. We get letters all the time from people who want to come here, live and play. We turn them down. People say DeMatha always {made living arrangements}. We did not."

DeMatha did give athletic scholarships and use fifth-year players when Metro league rules permitted such practices. But those rules were changed in the mid-1960s.

Vetter says because Harker does not naturally draw from one community, he will always be open to criticism.

"If I only get kids from out of town, then people say we don't use local players," he said. "If I only had players from Montgomery County, there would be people saying I was taking their best kids. Either way, you can't satisfy some people."

Schools that could be hurt most by playing Harker are Maryland public schools. They would have to count the games against the powerful Harker team against their state points, which determine playoff berths.

High Point traditionally plays DeMatha, which often produces one of the nation's top teams. But High Point Coach Ernie Welch says that even if Harker follows IAC eligibility rules, it is not close to being accepted by local coaches.

"One of the reasons we play DeMatha is the publicity, the rankings and the excitement," said Welch. "But DeMatha is not deliberately holding back kids to maintain another year of eligibility. And I am not saying Harker is either now, but they definitely did last year. And if they are still bringing in inner city kids who can't pass classes, I don't know if they have changed in one year. We will have to wait a couple of years to see."

Vetter is no stranger to criticism or success -- they came as a pair when he was coach at Flint Hill.

"Perceptions often overcome reality," said Vetter, who has won better than 90 percent of his career games. "When you win, people always have something to say. Many schools did not want to play us at Flint Hill because they thought we played overage kids or that we recruited. But I have never recruited a player and I never played an overage kid at Flint Hill. They have struggled {at Harker} with the Donald Ford incident and with the Stanley Wright situation. But we wanted to get this straightened out from the start at Harker and let everyone know we will follow IAC rules."

"We always played Flint Hill because we felt if we were going to build a program here, we wanted to play the best teams," said Maret Athletic Director Nick Markoff. "We never had a problem with Stu and we knew he used fifth-year players."

But Markoff is not ready to play Harker.

"We had a game scheduled with {Harker last season}, but canceled after the Ford situation developed," he said. "I understand what Stu is trying to do now and I wish him luck. He called me for a game and I told him because of past controversies with Harker, I preferred to take a wait-and-see approach before I play them again."

Largo Coach Lou Wilson said he would be willing to play Harker, but does not have any open nonleague dates.

"I think Stu has a bad reputation, but I think it is unjustified," said Wilson, whose team scrimmaged Harker this season. "It is a private school and if it is, kids should be able to go there from wherever they live. I would like to play them because I think it gives you a good evaluation of where your program stands."

But for some schools, Harker has become too good.

"We played them last year and all of a sudden their team started changing," said Richard McPherson, coach of The Heights. "This year, when I heard about the transition, I didn't want to play them. I called Stu Vetter and said it wouldn't even be a game. He said he was having trouble scheduling games. He said we whipped them in soccer and will probably beat them in baseball {Harker will be starting a baseball team this year}. I guess he figured it was okay to whip us in basketball."

Harker did, 91-36, on Dec. 4. The teams are scheduled to play again on Feb. 16. McPherson said he is hoping for snow that night.

"We will not play them again next year," McPherson said. "I told my kids to consider these games a scrimmage. {Harker} has a lot of good players and it is nice to see them play. But it would have been nicer to see them play someone else."

Kieffer says lost in the debate is his willingness to help youngsters who would otherwise have backs turned on them once they encountered problems elsewhere.

If anyone sees both sides, it may be University of Maryland-Baltimore County Coach Earl Hawkins. The former coach of Crossland High initiated Wright's contact with Harker to help improve Wright's SAT score. After one year at Harker, Wright is now a freshman at UMBC, starting on the basketball team.

"I have been a high school coach and I did not want to play people who had kids playing an extra year because it did give them a distinct advantage," Hawkins said. "But I don't think Stanley would have been as successful as he is now if he hadn't gone to Harker. I think he probably would have gone to a junior college, and although he is a good kid and I think would have made it, you never know what will happen to a kid once they get to junior college."

Hipp, a player at Harker, says he was disturbed when he first found out what Harker expected of him. School administrators wanted him to stay back one year, primarily to improve his math. He was expected to attend two to three hours of study halls per day.

"It took me about three months to get used to it, and I wondered all the time whether I made the right decision," said Hipp, who is from Southeast Washington. "Now, my grades are improved and I am glad I did it, but some people in my old neighborhood don't understand. They thought I shouldn't have left my old school {Ballou}. They see the switchover from wearing jeans and tennis shoes to neckties and sports jackets. It will help me because a lot of {college} recruiters think most of the time there are only dumb kids coming out of the inner city. They think they are taking a gamble when they recruit those kids."

If anyone has influence as to how Harker might eventually blend into its surrounding community, it may be Bill Kyle, the longtime Montgomery County co-supervisor of high school athletics.

Kyle has been an advocate of Montgomery schools playing nonleague games against private schools and teams from other Washington jurisdictions. He has been lobbying for a state plan that would allow schools to designate one or two nonleague basketball games not to count toward state points.

Kyle said negative feelings toward Harker currently run fairly strong among county schools, but he hopes that will change in time if Harker demonstrates it has cleaned up its problems.

"If they want to fit in, I would love to play them," Kyle said. "We wouldn't have a situation where we would force anyone to, but I think we have coaches who would like to playthem. In athletics, it takes awhile to live down a reputation, but I understand their problem. We will continue to take a look at it. We, in turn, should try to help. It would be great if we can work things out with them."

Off the court, Kieffer predicts the school's enrollment will be a big winner as a result of the nationally recognized team. Enrollment has hovered around 65 the past two years, which he says is the minimum to keep the school open. But the basketball publicity has generated athletic and nonathletic applicant inquiries that Kieffer hopes will help the school reach its capacity (110).

"It is not like somebody planned this and said, 'Let's have a nationally ranked basketball team,' " said Kieffer. "But I think this {basketball} will help us. People now know we are here."