To hear Some Northern Virginia coaches describe it, one of their largest sports programs is on its way to an early death.

The program is indoor track, a sport that has met -- and overcome -- resistance before.

This time, however, some coaches say they aren't sure they can breathe new life into the program.

"The winter program in Northern Virginia is in the throes of a slow strangulation process," says George Mason University track coach John Cook, who spent 11 years coaching at Edison High School in Alexandria before going to George Mason two years ago.

Although several Northern Virginia schools still attract many youngsters to indoor track, coaches say overall participation has declined this winter and is practically nonexistent at some high schools.

In recent years, the track program has caused considerable debate. Opponents say it is the only sports program with two sessions, outdoor track in the spring and indoor track in the winter. Local school officials add that few adequate facilities exist for the program, contending that most local gyms are unsafe for indoor track and only two Northern Virginia gyms -- at Episcopal High School in Alexandria and Jefferson Junior High School in Arlington -- are fully equipped.

Still, winter track flourished in the 1970s, and a number of Northern Virginia athletes in track and field received college scholarships.

But a year ago the Virginia High School League, which governs extracurricular activities for public schools, eliminated the state championship for indoor track and reduced the number of meets a team may enter from 12 to 10 Virginia regional meets. The reductions were part of an energy conservation package that also reduced other athletic activities.

George Mason coach Cook believes the cutbacks have contributed heavily to a decline in participation.

"If the competition continues to decline as it has this year," Cook says, "track and field won't fold completely, but it won't be at the level it was.

"By not maintaining a high level of competition in the winter, the kids lose something. I've gone to Maryland, New Jersey and New York this year looking for prospects because they run like hell in the winter in those states."

The elimination of the state championship meet, coaches say, particularly hurts athletes trying to attract the attention of college scouts.

"Dozens of college coaches came to the indoor state meets in the past," says Don Seemuller, assistant coach at Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County. "It provided a showcase for the athletes."

To make up for the cutbacks in Virginia meets, coaches say they are traveling out of the area more frequently to give youngsters the kind of competition and exposure to college scouts that the athletes need. The costs are not borne by the school systems, but by team members and their families through fund-raisers and other activities.

"We're going to more places this year to show our talent, which is kind of ironic since we're supposed to be saving energy," says Andy Tisinger, girls track coach at Fort Hunt High School in Fairfax County. "You just have to do it that way," he contends. "There are class performers in Northern Virginia who haven't stepped out against top competition yet this year."

In fact, Tisinger and other coaches with active programs are critical of coaches who have done little traveling this year.

"Some teams aren't traveling anywhere because the coaches just aren't willing to take the time," Tisinger contends. "Coaches have a sit-at-home attitude. There are a lot of politics involved, and they have to help fight for the program. It's a participation game. Coaches have to get the kids out and competing."

Indoor track, like most high school sports except football and basketball, is not a money-maker. But as track coaches like to point out, making money is not the purpose of high school athletics. They admit, however, that as budgets get tighter, the revenue-producing sports are the most likely to survive.

Still, they say the costs of indoor track are not high, especially considering the number of youngsters who can participate.

Last year, for example, 447 men and women competed in the Northern Regional championship meet, according to meet director Don Reviere, athletic director at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The meet cost about $2,400 to run. "That's not out of line with other major events, especially considering the high number of participants," Reviere says.

Finally, coaches at several schools say the people who would be hurt most by cuts in indoor track would be the athletes.

"Here at Lake Braddock, we have 120 kids in the winter track program," says Seemuller. "Other schools with good programs like T. C. Williams, Robinson, Fort Hunt and Annandale have about the same number. If the program is ever cut, where are all those kids going to go?"