Four years ago, when Andrew Notarfrancesco walked off the field at Cumberland Valley High in Mechanicsburg, Pa., the senior thought he had played the last football game of his career. He planned to attend the University of Arizona the next year and study architecture.

That plan changed a few months later, and Notarfrancesco ended up at Catholic University. Last weekend, in the final regular season game of his college career, the senior running back increased his four-year rushing total to 3,857 yards, a school record.

"Over the four years, it's been very interesting, from considering never playing to this," Notarfrancesco said. "I can't believe I ever thought of not playing football again."

Notarfrancesco has been a key figure for the past three years for Catholic, which visits Western Maryland at noon Saturday in a first-round game of the Division III tournament. The Cardinals, champions of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, will be looking for their first postseason victory since 1935, when they were a Division I school and defeated Mississippi in the Orange Bowl.

This season alone, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Notarfrancesco has rushed for 1,271 yards, including a career-best of 233 last Saturday against Bridgewater. He has twice been named the ODAC player of the week, and is a leading candidate for player of the year. In addition, he has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the three years since he was moved to running back before his sophomore year.

"There have been some times when he has just carried us," Catholic Coach Tom Clark said.

Notarfrancesco rarely even carried the ball at Cumberland Valley, the same school that produced NFL running backs Ricky Watters of the Seattle Seahawks and Jon Ritchie of the Oakland Raiders. Notarfrancesco mostly played linebacker in high school, and during his senior season averaged seven carries a game.

Still, Cumberland Valley Coach Tim Rimpfel told Notarfrancesco he thought he could play in college. His older brother, Chris, was just finishing his own football career at Gettysburg, another Division III school that had played against Catholic in 1993 and 1994. Chris had heard that Catholic had an up-and-coming program with a good coach. And he heard the school had a strong architectural program as well.

So Rimpfel sent videotapes of Notarfrancesco to Clark. The Cardinals were interested, and Notarfrancesco made his only official football visit to any school. Soon after he decided to attend Catholic.

"I was about a couple days away from sending my deposit to Arizona," Notarfrancesco said.

As a freshman Notarfrancesco weighed only 160 pounds, so Catholic coaches considered playing him at cornerback. Before the season, however, he moved to inside linebacker, where he started nine games and recorded 39 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks.

Before his sophomore season, Catholic had to find a replacement for the graduated Matt Taylor, who had broken the school record for career rushing yards with 3,802. The offensive staff pulled up those tapes of Notarfrancesco rushing the ball at Cumberland Valley, and one day in spring practice put him on offense.

"The first carry in spring practice he broke about five tackles," Clark said. "I turned to my offensive coordinator [Marty Favret] and said, 'I think we've got our guy.'

"He's not the fastest guy, but he's extremely physical, extremely tough. He's got great balance. He's got great instincts."

Notarfrancesco has also stayed true to his major, architecture. He estimated that he spends as much time in a studio as on the football field, and he has to miss practice on Wednesdays because of a conflict with a class.

"It's been a great ride," Notarfrancesco said. "It's been a lot of fun. This year especially, with everything that's happened for us. We think it's going to be a real nice culmination here in the playoffs."

PREVIEW

1999 NCAA Division III Football Playoffs

First Round

No. 5 Catholic University (9-1) at

No. 4 Western Maryland (10-0).

When: Saturday, Noon.

Details: Green Terror holds 6-2 lead in the all-time series. ... Both teams are 0-2 in NCAA playoff games. ... Winner of game will face No. 2 Trinity (Tex.) University in the second round Nov. 27.