Stu Vetter is back. And, like each of his previous three coaching jobs, Vetter is ready to turn a small private school boys basketball team -- this time, Montrose Christian School in Rockville -- into a national power.

"Our goal, as always with every program I've ever had, is to be the best we can be and to strive to be the best," Vetter said yesterday after conducting one of his camps at Jewish Day School in Rockville.

Vetter, 47, has a career record of 549-66 in 23 seasons, and a long history of success and controversy. More than 70 of his players have gone on to Division I colleges (with a handful making it to the NBA). But two of the schools he has coached at de-emphasized their programs after he left; the third closed.

He left his first coaching job after 11 seasons at Flint Hill in Fairfax. He then went to Harker Prep in Potomac, which closed after Vetter's second season there. And at his most recent position, St. John's at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., Vetter left after six seasons amid a wave of criticism that his program circumvented school policies.

Montrose Christian Headmaster Scott Barron said he was not concerned with Vetter's past. Vetter attended several Montrose Christian games and practices last season, and Barron said he felt comfortable hiring Vetter based on meeting him at games.

"I've heard about [Vetter's past], but I have not talked with anyone about it," said Barron, who just completed his second year at the school. "Stu is not an unknown quantity. He has been a part of our program for a year."

"With Coach Vetter's reputation, there are a lot of people who will want to be a part of his program," he said. "If there are students who want to be a part of this school and are committed to our [educational] program, that's fine."

And unlike his previous stops, where Vetter had to start almost from scratch, Montrose Christian already has a strong program in place. Kevin Sutton, who played for Vetter at Flint Hill and later was his top assistant coach at Prospect Hall, guided the Mustangs to a 32-6 record last year in his first season. (Last week Sutton accepted an assistant coach position at Old Dominion University.)

Montrose Christian returns several key players, including 6-foot-9 center Mohammed Diakite, and has received a commitment from rising senior Levi Watkins to transfer from Pallotti. Sutton yesterday said that Diakite, a senior who averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks last season, has orally committed to play for St. John's University.

With Vetter, those players likely are just a starting point. Although he said he has not had time to think about possible transfers, Vetter has a history of luring the nation's top high school talent to play for him. Many basketball observers expect Montrose -- which has an enrollment of 400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade -- to be a magnet for top players in the Washington area and the nation.

"He has a network of people to steer players to him," said recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "I think Vetter will take that team, add some parts to it, and be back contending [nationally]. Move over, Oak Hill, Stu Vetter is back in town."

Oak Hill, a small boarding school in southwestern Virginia, finished No. 1 in most national high school polls last season; Prospect Hall was the consensus No. 1 in 1997-98 in Vetter's sixth and final season there.

Vetter said he will beef up Montrose Christian's schedule next season, which already includes tournaments in Hawaii and Rehobeth Beach, Del. "Kids want to play at a good program and want to play for a coach who is going to be able to advance their skills," Vetter said. ". . . I anticipate we'll be able to have an outstanding program."