Ralph Paden, one of the Washington area's longest-serving coaches, said yesterday he will retire from coaching after 29 seasons as the head football coach at Fairmont Heights.

"It's been quite a while," said Paden, who plans to announce his retirement to the team at its season-opening practice this morning. "But it never seemed like a difficult task because I enjoyed myself every step of the way."

Paden has a career record of 177-103 and his teams made five playoff appearances and twice advanced to state championship games. Fairmont Heights Athletic Director Dave Sharpless said assistant coach Stefan Gansert will be the team's interim coach this season.

Football practices at most Maryland public schools start today; the bulk of Northern Virginia public schools start practice Monday. D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association schools started practice last Monday.

Paden said Sharpless and Stan Boone -- who have been his assistants since he started coaching -- and George Wake, an assistant for the past 24 seasons, also will retire from coaching football.

Numbers Game

For at least a decade, many DCIAA schools have struggled with low turnout for football. But for coaches at Cardozo and Anacostia, the numbers appear to be a lot brighter this season.

First-year Cardozo coach Marvin Drummond said nearly 25 players have come out for practice at the Northwest school, in part because of the new coaching staff and increased efforts to recruit middle school students.

Anacostia assistant coach Reese Morgan said the Indians opened practices with 27 players. Last season, Coach Willie Stewart had to troll the halls on the first day of school in search of students to fill out a roster that had 19 players.

Morgan and Stewart attributed the renewed interest to the nearly completed renovations at the Southeast school's football stadium. By midseason, Anacostia, which played on the road for the past several seasons, will have a new field, track, bleachers, press box and scoreboard.

"The students are excited about the improvements," Morgan said. "They've got a new allegiance to the school and really want to compete in athletics for it."

Hovet Accepts Positions

Ken Hovet accepted the positions of athletic director, football coach and social studies teacher at Marriott's Ridge, which will be Howard County's 12th high school when it opens in 2005.

The county's board of education last week overturned a recommendation that Hovet be fired for his reported role in an improper grade change last fall at Oakland Mills. Hovet spent the past 12 years as Oakland Mills's football coach and two years as its athletic director.

This school year, Hovet will teach at River Hill in Clarksville and will serve as offensive coordinator at Magruder in Montgomery County, he said.

Staff writer Jon Gallo contributed to this report.