You're watching the top-rated running back in your state, someone who has broken every record except one - the career yardage mark.

He's eight yards shy with four seconds left to play.

The quarterback takes the snap, turns right and hands the ball to this running back, who somehow eludes a defensive tackle, cuts left, spins past another defender and runs for several more yards before being tackled between the 39- and 40-yard lines. Officially, where does the ball get spotted? Does the runner get an extra yard for going halfway to the next yard marker?

Tough choices. But ultimately, here's the answer: There are no half yards in football. If the ball is closer to the next line, add a yard.

How about this: A basketball player is one assist shy of the school's first-ever triple double. She's scored 20 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and collected 9 assists. Or was that 10? Your notes aren't clear, and no one around you seems to know. But if you're the only media person at the game, you may be the official scorer, so to speak, making these final calls.

Compiling stats for school sports is one of the most daunting tasks in sports writing. In National Football League or college football games, for instance, stats are hand delivered between quarters. Reporters covering high school football have no such help. In many cases, the student managers or parent volunteers who are keeping the stats care little about the visiting team's performance and might not record it accurately.

KNOW STATS, KNOW SPORTS

Covering high school games is the traditional way to break into sports writing, and keeping accurate stats is the way to convince an editor you're worth a tryout. "Most of my young stringers are score takers who have earned a shot," says Art Kabelowsky, prep sports editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It's a meritocracy, though; if you don't pan out, you don't pan out."

Keeping stats is a big deal, echoes Jim Ruppert, sports editor for The State Journal- Register in Springfield, Ill. "It is not possible to cover a game without statistics, and in a lot of ways I think it's more important to have a person more proficient in keeping stats than writing on high school coverage."

Once you land a job, remember that part of that job is keeping track of numbers. 'We train our reporters and football correspondents to also be official statisticians for games,"- says Bryan Black, high school sports editor in Norfolk, Va., for The Virginian-Pilot. "We have a lot of football coaches who love to inflate their players' numbers. In addition, our deadlines are so severe that there's no way we could get high school football stats from games in the paper unless we kept them ourselves. So our reporters and correspondents are trained to do stats by official NCAA stat procedures as well as to keep a play-by-play. Our staff writers also are adept at making notes for themselves while keeping track of all this."

As you can tell from that description, keeping accurate stats is not the only challenge reporters face in covering prep sports. At games, reporters also need to keep precise notes, track down sources after the game and then file a story - even when there's no press box.The prep beat is far different from college and pro beats, where sports information directors distribute play-by-play, run to locker rooms and collect quotes, set up post-game interviews and offer official stats, allowing writers to focus more on telling a story.

Prep writers also deal more directly with readers - especially those readers who are the parents of players. Michael Phelps' mom or Derek Jeter's dad is not going to call you to complain about a story. But parents of high school athletes will definitely call if they don't like something you wrote, if you failed to mention their kids' names, or if you simply don't see their child as a star the way the parents do. -

"You cannot win covering high school sports, even if you say something nice," says The Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan - who, like many sportswriters, started his career on the school beat. "It's the worst beat. Underline it. Double underline it. It's never enough. Parents will get angry. Even if you say something nice about one kid, another parent will say, 'What about my kid?"

Yet there's no greater proving ground for a reporter than the prep beat. And on a good day, it can be a lot of fun. "It's an extremely fast-paced and hectic way to work, but ourvery best reporters love it; they get an adrenaline rush out of it," says Black of The Virginian-Pilot. "There's nothing like covering high school football, especially when there are talented athletes on the field."

Beginning journalists who view high school coverage as rinky-dink and beneath their dignity are making a big mistake. For one thing, no reporter gets the big assignments until he or she has learned to do a killer job on the smaller ones. For another, these days even large news organizations are putting more emphasis on prep coverage, as local newspapers have done for years. No matter how great a job ESPN and other big outlets do on the rational scene, they'll never match local journalists' knowledge of their local leagues and communities - and fans of college and pro sports will never match high school fans for sheer enthusiasm. For most newspapers, high school coverage counts far more in attracting readers than does major college or pro coverage.

PREPARE

Once you're hired as a prep writer, call coaches and athletic directors in your area to introduce yourself during
a short chat.

Verify spellings of all names. School rosters frequently contain typos, so check with an assistant coach or
manager.

Speak with both coaches before the game begins, to set up a time and place for post-game comments.

The visiting team often loads onto buses from the field and leaves quickly after a game ends, so speak with
players and coaches on that team first.

Talk with players first, coaches second. Learn more about the game from those who played it.

Check state high school athletics Web sites for scores across the state, determining the next opponent for any
school that's advanced in the postseason. Plus, you can learn scores - and, perhaps, stats - of other key games.

WATCH

Stay out of the press box when you can. You'll get a far better perspective by walking the sidelines for many
sports, such as football, soccer and track and field, than by sitting in a press box, high above the action. Is
the ball at the 39 or 40? Did the hurdler scrape the final bar? You usually can't tell from the press box.

Crowds and commotion might drive you out of the press box anyway, since some schools allow anyone to wander in and
out. "More times than I'd like to remember, I have asked school officials why they call it the press box if
there's no room for the press," Ruppert says.

ASK

Most prep editors prefer than a reporter speak to at least two to three sources. Deadline drives this, though.

Night games can end less than an hour before deadline. That means getting quotes from players may be difficult unless you grab a player before the coach's post-game locker room speech starts.

Treat high school athletes far differently from professional players who are paid to perform. Most high school athletes won't play past high school. Most high school athletes play for fun. And most high school athletes aren't as mature or as savvy as older athletes are. So, if a prep player says something that's ridiculous, ignorant or mean-spirited, rephrase the question: "Did you really mean to say that? .....If the person strongly restates that opinion, then you can use it, if it's newsworthy. Otherwise, leave it alone.

WRITE

Don't be overly critical of high school athletes. That does not mean you should make excuses for poor plays. You can write that someone fumbled a ball, struck out with the winning run on base or missed a key free throw. But don't say that these kids choked or blew it. That's especially unfair for a teen who's still learning the game.

Each prep game has something unique about it; each has its own story. It's not always easy to see this as you're standing in the sleet on yet another weekend afternoon, missing yet another get-together of family or friends because you have to work. To psych yourself up, remember that teams and fans care passionately about this game and will be checking online as soon as they get home, eager to read your story. Printouts and newspaper clips will earn a place of honor on family refrigerators and in players' scrapbooks.

You'll have the story for your own scrapbook as well, and every story you write paves the way for future stories. "Working for a smaller paper will help you improve your game," says Kabelowsky of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Even if you are writing for a weekly, find out what the daily paper's deadline is and try to write your story to
meet that deadline. It's good practice."