The sounds emanating these days from the athletic facilities at George Mason University are the sounds of growth.

There are grunts and groans of athletes training, whistles and commands of coaches, the telephone chatter of publicists, cheers and jeers of the fans and the rumble and clatter of construction.

Once the quiet, undernourished weakling of university sports programs in this area, athletes at George Mason now swagger a bit, like kids who have flexed and finally found their muscles.

"I like to say that we're building a balanced program of overall excellence," says Athletic Director Bob Epskamp.

Some observers would call the comment downright cocky for a school that spent much of the last decade assuring people that it did, in fact, participate in intercollegiate athletics.

But a year ago, George Mason moved from small college to university level status, and that's when things began to change.

University President George W. Johnson went on record as supporting a stepped-up athletic program. The university put up $8 million to build a new sports complex. A new athletic director and a new basketball coach were hired. The athletic department budget was increased from $490,000 to $575,000.

Positive results have come rapidly:

George Mason athletes won titles in five state track events last spring -- four men's events, one women's.

The men's cross-country team tied with Virginia Tech for the state title and took fourth place in a division meet this fall. The team hopes to qualify for the NCAA finals later this month.

The soccer team is ranked fourth in the NCAA's Middle Atlantic Region and has been flirting with a national ranking all season.

The baseball team won the fall championship in the Captial Collegiate Conference.

The golf team compiled a 17-3 record en route to the Capital Collegiate Conference title this fall.

The man who keeps the closest eye on such accomplishments is Epskamp, 50, who became accustomed to big-time athletics during his 11 years as a track coach at Ohio State University. Epskamp came to GMU a year ago, from the job of athletic director at a Michigan junior college, because he liked "the challenge of bringing the program up to (university level) standards."

"In Northern Virginia an outstanding program would become a rallying point, something people would want to become involved in," says Epskamp.

Epskamp pushes for involvement not only from the university but from the community, through activities sponsored for the community and through organizations such as the Patriot Club, an organization designed to bring in members of the community to boost the athletic department.

"We're looking for 600 people to join the club this year," Epskamp said, "and become part of the school's athletic development."

A good bit of that development is taking place on the west side of the campus, where work in under way on a $5 million field house, an $800,000 track-and-field complex and $2 million project to build a series of playing fields. Epskamp predicts the field house, which will include facilities for track, tennis and racquetball, "will be a showcase for the community."

Despite the obvious commitment to building a top-quality department, Epskamp concedes there is still much progress to be made. The budget, for instance, even though it top a half-million dollars this year, is far short of budgets at other schools in George Mason's division, and Epskamp is looking for ways to increase the revenues for athletics.

"We are running a class program while stretching our dollars as far as possible," says Epskamp. "It's incumbent upon an athletic program to find income other than student fees to support its programs. We need increased gate receipts, promotions and donations."

Donations last year brought only $50,000. Promotions helped bring an average gate of 1,500 spectators to basketball games, about half the gymnasium's capacity. Epskamp's goal this season is to fill that gym with basketball fans.

In fact, George Mason is counting heavily on basketball to establish national recognition.The team suffered through 21 losses in 26 games last season, a record that spelled good-bye to long-time coach John Linn. Linn's replacement is Joe Harrington, a former assistant coach at Maryland.

"I hope (Harrington) can put together a group that can slay some giants," Epskamp says. "We're making our gym more attractive to fans . . . we have 13 home games this year, as opposed to only seven last year. If we have an exciting team, we can provide community identification with our program."

Harrington, 34, enters the season knowing that university president Johnson has said publicly, "Basketball will be the flagship of our athletic program and Joe Harrington will be our captain." Still, he says, the only pressure he feels is self-imposed.

"The athletic department realizes that basketball can bring attention to the whole program," Harrington says. "Let's face it, this is the right time for the right team to become the rallying point around here."

Harrington is cautious in talking about the team's prospects. Much of the outcome hinges on senior Andre Gaddy, a 6-foot-11 center who averaged: 18.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game last year. Gaddy being touted by George Mason as an All-American prospect.

"We're progressing, and I think we can improve on last year's performance," Harrington says. "But we need work, fundamentally."

And Harrington says he welcomes the challenge.

"This school's athletic program is just like a bomb getting ready to explode."