Three years ago, Paul VI Catholic High School often was an easy win for other teams in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, but since then the program has been riding a crest of change. The team is 6-0-1, and tonight the Panthers will play perhaps the most important game in their 16-year history when they host third-ranked DeMatha.

But with the success has come controversy. After the Panthers' season-opening victory over Good Counsel, Paul VI informed the WCAC it had used a player against Good Counsel who had practiced with the team before enrolling at the Fairfax private school, according to league sources. According to these sources, last week Paul VI was told by the league that it had to forfeit the Aug. 27 game. Paul VI has appealed that decision, the sources said. Those sources said principals from each school in the league will review the case next week.

According to these sources, Paul VI presented documents indicating that the player had enrolled in the school the day before the opening game. A four-member committee--three WCAC principals and an athletic director--ruled that Paul VI must forfeit because the player had practiced for 2 1/2 weeks before enrolling at Paul VI, according to a source.

Before the Panthers' Sept. 4 game against St. John's, Paul VI administrators told Coach Wade Keel that the player could not attend the school. The player has subsequently transferred.

The player in question "was not a factor and has not been in the entire season," Keel said.

Paul VI Principal John Lyle declined to comment on the matter because, he said, WCAC bylaws say the league commissioner is the sole spokesman on league matters.

"I think any time a team goes from not being successful to being successful, people are going to scrutinize them pretty closely," said WCAC Commissioner Bob Hardage, who declined to comment on the league's proceedings. "I think the league stands behind them [Paul VI]. That came out [Wednesday at a league-wide meeting of athletic directors]. They are a part of our league, and we need to support them and not by any means bad-mouth their program for what they have done. . . .

"I think they've done a nice coaching job building their team. Certainly, give Wade Keel and his coaching staff the credit. They've worked extremely hard at it."

On the Rise

Keel is determined to see the controversy through. He had no high school coaching experience and had coached youth league football for one year before taking over at Paul VI three years ago. He had been a friend of Lyle's for years when he joined the staff of Paul VI as strength and conditioning coach around December 1996. Keel became head coach in August 1997.

He has worked hard to build the program.

"I'm a fighter," said Keel, 43, adding that his self-described aggressive and enthusiastic style has resulted in some uncomfortable situations.

"I've had some run-ins--I'm not going to deny that," he said. "I can be a little bit combative. That's the personality of a Viking. That's the way I carry myself.

"I think I'm a gentleman, too. I'm diplomatic. It really hasn't been all that bad. . . . I don't think I'm some guys' favorite. I didn't go through 15 years as an assistant. 'Jealous' may not be a good word, but it's, 'This guy hasn't paid his dues. Who is this maverick?' "

When Paul VI received a letter from the league office informing it that it must forfeit the Good Counsel victory, Keel's first instinct was to contest it. Keel confirmed he wanted to take the matter to court or find an independent arbitrator, but was told not to by officials of the Arlington Diocese, which oversees Paul VI.

"I don't know [the committee] wanted to see the facts necessarily the way Father Lyle and I were presenting them," Keel said.

After the opener, Paul VI later tied No. 10 Gonzaga, 0-0, and defeated Carroll and McNamara, two of the league's better teams. A victory tonight would be a big step toward the first WCAC regular season title for the Panthers.

"My success is one thing I don't think you can knock," Keel said. "I have not cheated at anything. I don't have to. I think it's a matter of a lot of guys start hurling a lot of stuff because they're mad or whatever. But nothing beats good old-fashioned work.

"Maybe the start was unconventional and they thought, 'Who the hell is this guy?' But I think I've shown myself to be fairly credible at this point. Maybe our style is unorthodox, but it's still football; you line up 11 against 11 and go for it."

'A Blue-Collar Guy'

Keel and his younger brother, Walt, who is an assistant coach at Paul VI, operate a picture-framing business. Previously, the two owned a liquor store in Southeast Washington, operated a nightclub in Annandale and worked as professional boxing trainers and managers. Boxing observers credit the Keels with building Washington fighter Keith Holmes into the World Boxing Council's middleweight champion.

Almost everyone associated with the Keels speaks of their hard work and dedication.

"I think the best way to describe me is I can be a little rough around the edges," Keel said. "I'm a blue-collar guy. Not that blue-collar is good or bad, but I work hard."

And Keel expects the same out of his players.

"Wade is a great coach," said Merrill Robertson, who made Keel the legal guardian for his middle son, Jerry, a linebacker and running back on the team who lives with the coach's family. "He [Keel] wanted a great team. So he went out and recruited guys. He's dedicated. He knows how to win and he knows what he needs to win. That's what I wanted for my son."

Robertson said his family, which lives in Richmond, became friendly with the Keels when their sons, Merrill Robertson Jr. and Patrick Keel, roomed together last school year as postgraduates at Fork Union Military Academy. Merrill Jr. visited the Keels in Fairfax and, while talking with Wade Keel, the subject of Jerry came up.

Merrill Robertson, who works as a respiratory therapist at Southside Regional Medical Center, said he is paying "a small fee" for Jerry to stay at the Keels.

Keel said Jerry Robertson is not on scholarship--which, if he were, would be against WCAC rules. According to information on Paul VI's Web site, tuition at the school is $7,210 for a student whose family is not a member of the Arlington Diocese; the diocesan rate is $5,490.

"There is no such thing as a scholarship," said Keel, who added he had the Robertsons fill out forms requesting financial aid, which then were sent to a private company that recommends whether to issue aid to students. Keel said the recommendation will not be acted on until November.

Lyle stressed that most of Paul VI's financial aid goes to nonathletes. However, Jack Kirby, the school's former athletic director, said that more financial aid for athletes is being used than previously.

"I think a lot more people started taking advantage of it," said Kirby, who left Paul VI last summer to become the athletic director at Broad Run High in Ashburn. "It was always there. We just didn't have a lot of them [athletes] apply for it."

Robertson is one of several transfers helping Paul VI to its strong start. Junior running back Andre Eason, in his second year at Paul VI after transferring from West Potomac, has rushed for a team-leading 751 yards and six touchdowns. Other transfers include offensive lineman Jeremy Wyche from Potomac (Va.), linebacker Jon Rude from McLean and lineman Chris Walker from Florida.

"That's the nature of the way football has gone today," said O'Connell Coach Darrell Snyder, whose team will play Paul VI on Nov. 5. "I think they went out and got some kids that really have helped them. They were able to get the kids and do the right things. . . . Plus they have some good kids they've brought up together. Wade's done a pretty good job."

The best of the players Keel inherited from former coach Dennis Hutson are linebackers Nick Gallagher and Thomas Hoover and quarterback Colin Hannigan, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only one interception. Paul VI, which was 6-25 in Hutson's final three seasons, was 7-4 last season under Keel.

"They're a very physical team," said Ireton Coach Mike Lalli, whose team lost to Paul VI, 41-0, last weekend. They hit all the way to the whistle, which is good, I guess."

Lyle, in his 15th year at the school and fourth as principal, said he is pleased with his football team's improvement.

"We've tried to give the kids a little more self-confidence and pride in the school, and tried to get the kids a little bit more motivated," said Lyle, who is in his last year at Paul VI because the religious order that operates the school (of which Lyle is a member) is leaving the school. "It's just a lot of positive reinforcement trying to build up their confidence and their esteem."

Lyle said he does not treat football differently than any other activity.

"One of my goals has been to try and achieve the very best in every program we have--academics, athletics, yearbook, the newspaper," he said. "I want the best for every program."

CAPTION: In his third year as head coach at Paul VI Catholic, Wade Keel, right, and assistant coach Walt Keel have brought the Panthers to a 6-0-1 record entering tonight's game vs. DeMatha.

CAPTION: Senior quarterback Colin Hannigan has thrown 14 touchdown passes for Panthers.