For the first time in several years, there is no clear-cut favorite to win the Northern Region title in boys high school cross-country competition this fall.

Among girls teams, however, the season may resemble a television re-run: As in the past few years, Fort Hunt will likely dominate the winner's circle. Although the Federals lost a few stars, other schools will probably be chasing the team's talented cast of newcomers.

Ask a coach what the dominant boys team will be and several schools are named. Those most often mentioned are Robinson, Fort Hunt, Annandale, Langley, Washington-Lee and South Lakes. But because depth is so important in cross-country, Robinson, with six solid runners, may have a slight edge on its opponents.

In a recent dual meet against Oakton, Robinson showed its strength by winning first, second, fourth and fifth places. Those are the results Robinson coach Maynard Heins expects from a team with six of its top eight runners back from last year.

Five of the top six runners on Robinson's team this year qualified for last year's state meet. The team placed second in the region last year, behind Washington-Lee, and seventh in the state.

This year Robinson is led by seniors John Terino and Robert Bowen, and juniors Rex Robinson, Lewis Liberatore and Doug Thompson. Last year's top runner Vance Casey is now running in the No. 6 spot after getting off to a slow start in pre-season practice, according to Heins.

One of the reasons it is rare to find a high school team with five or six consistently competitive runners is because of cross-country's grueling nature.

"The sport takes an individual with exceptional personal motivation," says Heins, who is in his third year coaching cross-country at Robinson. "No matter how much supervision, when they're out there running on their own, they must motivate themselves.

"They all reach a level of pain, but they must go on. Finding kids who are motivated to do that is hard."

The real training begins in the early summer, says Heins, when team members begin accumulating "base" miles by running on their own each day. "Base builds their strength," Heins explains. "Base means running just for miles, not speed. Speed comes from running sprints and hills once the base is established."

Heins says the good high school runners put in 30 miles of base a week early in the summer and build gradually to 70 or 80 miles a week by the time school starts. At Robinson, team members are expected to run for 25 to 30 minutes three times a week before school. After school, there's more running and practice.

"There are a lot of aches and pains in the knees, hips and shins," Heins says. "They're 'use' injuries and you just have to learn to run through them."

The goal of all the hard work, of course, is to produce a champion, something Heins is hoping for this year.

Producing champions is something Andy Tisinger, girls cross-country coach at Fort Hunt, has done often in the past few years.

Tisinger's runners have been extraordinary: Three members of last year's championship team received full athletic scholarships -- Sue Miley to Penn State, Chanley Bregnan to the University of Iowa and Derial Rhodes to Old Dominion University. Another runner from last year's team, Robin Roughton, won a partial scholarship to William and Mary. And three years ago, Tisinger coached Linda Portasik, now an all-America runner for the University of Tennessee.

It is not surprising, then, that Fort Hunt has 33 girls on this year's team. Only seven can run in any race, but Tisinger has that important factor of depth.

Still, word was out among coaches that this is the year to beat Fort Hunt. After all, Tisinger lost his top four runners from last year.

But last weekend Fort Hunt won the James Wood Invitational meet in Winchester, serving notice to other Northern Virginia teams that the names may not be familiar but the outcome of meets probably will be. In fact, one of the teams Fort Hunt beat in Winchester was Lake Braddock High School, touted to be the Federals' major competition this season.

"We had a tremendous five weeks of practice (starting in early August)," Tisinger says. "Every year I hear the talk about how we're not going to be that good. I like it. It gives us a challenge."

Tisinger took his runners to a training camp in rural Maryland for a week during the summer, where they worked on base mileage plus flexibility exercises designed to prevent strains and pulls. They also worked on conditioning by playing other sports such as volleyball and swimming.

"Ours is not a high mileage program," Tisinger says. "It never has been. But we train solid every day. I don't want to wear the kids out."

The runners who are expected to keep Fort Hunt ahead of other area schools are seniors Margaret Harned, Judy Hubbell and Holly McGovern, junior Julie Reddick and freshman Terry Snell.