In the past two months, Candace Dowell had heard many legends about the girls' basketball program at Notre Dame Academy that she found difficult to believe. But on Friday afternoon, as Dowell stood in front of the small school at the end of a one-lane road that connected to the middle of nowhere, she felt downright incredulous.

"They have an amazing basketball team here?" she said.

Four hours earlier, Dowell and her parents had left their home in Salem, Va., on a pilgrimage to find what friends had described as the epicenter of girls' prep basketball in Virginia. They drove 200 miles on highways, exited through the quaint town of Middleburg and hooked right onto an access road that took them deep into a forest. When the road dead-ended in front of a squat building on top of a hill, Dowell briefly wondered if she'd arrived at the wrong school.

A junior point guard at Salem High School, Dowell had come to visit the school to see if she wanted to transfer there for her senior season. Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 by The Post and No. 6 in USA Today's national poll, had built a high school team so advanced it mirrored a college program: a geographically diverse group of players, backed by Nike sponsorship, that traveled coast to coast to play a national schedule.

Mike Teasley, the coach at Notre Dame, had built his program in the image of the area's top boys' teams. He created a mandatory, daily study hall. He ran practices for nine months each year. He scheduled games against the best teams and sought the best players -- even when it risked his school's reputation and jeopardized the Dragons' chances to compete for a Virginia state independent school title.

As evidence of his burgeoning powerhouse, Teasley received occasional calls from interested players and parents from New York to California. He had helped Dowell schedule her visit and agreed to lead her on a tour. At 3 p.m. on Friday, Beasley met Dowell and led her through the Notre Dame hallways.

"Why are you smiling so big?" Teasley asked Dowell.

"I'm excited," Dowell said. "And I always smile."

"Yeah," Teasley said. "Well, you haven't practiced with me yet."

Teasley came to Notre Dame a decade ago as an assistant coach for the school's equally prolific boys' basketball team. He ascended to head coach of the girls' team in 2003 for two reasons: He had experience coaching his sister, Mystics guard Nikki Teasley; and he already had helped build one nationally renowned program at Notre Dame.

Over the next two years, Teasley quickly pieced together a roster loaded with Division I prospects. He met a talented point guard, Ebonie Williams, while coaching at a clinic run by his sister. He recruited Josette Campbell and Azania Stewart from London. Three players transferred from Broad Run High School, and another enrolled from West Virginia.

"He pretty much told every one of us to get ready," said Campbell, a junior forward, "because our lives were going to be basketball, basketball, basketball."

Notre Dame (26-1) has played games this season in New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Naples, Fla. Teasley supervises a mandatory study hall from 3 to 5 p.m. -- "I want them isolated, away from the boys," he said -- and then leads a two-hour practice. Sometimes, when the boys' team is using the gym, Teasley takes his team into the school cafeteria, pushes aside tables and chairs, and orders his girls to stretch and run sprints. Then, when the gym opens, Teasley holds practice until 9 p.m.

On her visit to Notre Dame, Dowell tried to envision a high school team with such single-minded purpose. In Salem, she had become a star -- and a lightly recruited Division I player -- despite competition and teammates with less drive than her. Dowell guessed she would improve more in one season at Notre Dame then she had in three seasons in Salem. That possibility made the trade-offs of a transfer -- the school's $15,000 tuition, the goodbyes to high school friends, the move in with a Middleburg-area host family -- seem reasonable.

For the first stop on their tour, Dowell and her parents followed Teasley into the Notre Dame gym. With a set of bleachers on one side and the school stage on the other, the gym looked like a perfect fit for a private school with 300 students. But Notre Dame recently outgrew it.

"It's standing-room only in this place," Teasley told Dowell.

By transforming the girls' basketball team, Teasley has slowly started to alter the make-up of the entire school. Notre Dame was founded by nuns from Ohio in 1965, and it functioned as an all-girls school for 25 years. Notre Dame has maintained a well-rounded athletic department since it started admitting boys in 1990, but Teasley's success has awakened the school's administration to a new world of possibility. The headmaster, John Borley, works to raise funds to build a second field house. He monitors Notre Dame's position in the USA Today rankings and imagines the opportunities.

"Every time somebody sees our name through girls' basketball, Notre Dame gets a little bit more attention," Borley said. "Our name spreads. We get more applications. We improve our reputation. We become bigger and better."

Virginia coaches and administrators, though, complain that ambition is precisely the problem: Notre Dame, they said, has betrayed its identity as a small local school that plays in a small private school league. Last year, Notre Dame beat Shenandoah Valley Academy, a conference opponent, 104-8. When the same two schools advanced to the final of the Cavalier Athletic Conference three months later, Shenandoah forfeited. Notre Dame received the first-place trophy in the mail.

Intent on avoiding similar disasters, Teasley decided that the Notre Dame junior varsity would play all conference games this season -- but that created an even bigger problem. Notre Dame, which won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) Division I state championship last season, will not be eligible to play in the postseason this year. The VISAA banned Notre Dame because it failed to play enough games against Virginia opponents.

"That doesn't work for us if your junior varsity is playing the game. That's skirting the rules," said Dick Kemper, VISAA's executive director. "If they basically have two teams, a red team and a blue team, that's not right. They don't play enough in the state of Virginia, and they're trying to get around the rules."

Teasley said he's being punished for defying conventions, not rules. Notre Dame is one of 22 girls' programs that receives free sneakers and warmups from Nike, Teasley said. Many of the players receive need-based financial aid to help cover the tuition. Teasley recommends that his girls all play on the same summer team. Still, Teasley said he's gone out of the way to stay within Virginia's high school rules. Unlike the Notre Dame boys' team, Teasley said his team carries no fifth-year players and does not allow girls to reclassify to a different grade.

Said Teasley: "I'm done with even trying to bother with the Virginia situation. I feel like my integrity is being questioned. I play by their rules, and they treat me like a crook. We're being outcast for one reason: We've gotten too good."

Early Friday night, Dowell sat between her parents nine rows above the Notre Dame gym floor. Notre Dame hosted Riverdale Baptist (ranked No. 9 by The Post), and Dowell watched while she weighed her immediate future. With a feisty, pressing defense and effective outside shooting, Notre Dame led for most of the game. During timeouts, Dowell studied the Notre Dame roster. Ebonie Williams, a senior, had already committed to Seton Hall. Eight juniors would return next season, Dowell reasoned. "It's crazy how good they're going to be," Dowell said. "I don't know if I'd even play at all.

But before Notre Dame won, 45-42, before Dowell walked out of the gym and said goodbye to Teasley, before she drove 30 minutes with her parents to a Holiday Inn in Winchester and slept before the long drive home to Salem, she had already made up her mind.

"I don't really care if I even start for this team," she said. "No matter what, I know this is the best place to be."