They are the best. Ever.

They stay long after their last class -- to run. They give up their weekends to run. They put enormous amounts of time, energy and concentration into their sport, and their work has made them the most successful running squad in Virginia. They are the girls' cross country team of Langley High School.

In the past two years, they have never been beaten. One race after another, they consistently place their first five girls in the top 20 finishers. On Saturday in Charlottesville, they will defend their state title by running 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) over a hilly course at Piedmont Community College.

The scene in high school cross country for the past two years has become wonderfully repetitive for the Langley girls.

At the sound of the starter's pistol, they swarm to the front of the race, stride through the mud, across the meadows and over the hills with the grace of autumn leaves blowing in a cool breeze.

A look of determination, a grunt of pain, the sweat of a thoroughbred racehorse -- the outcome for the Saxons is always the same. Regardless of the competition, the first runners to finish wear the Langley green and white.

It is easy to take the Langley girls for granted these days. Anyone who has seen them during the past two seasons knows that just as the sun rises every morning, so will the Saxons be victorious. Since Langley developed a girls' cross-country program in 1979, the team has won four consecutive district championships, three straight regionals, and are seeking their second straight state title.

What makes the team so successful?

"I think the reason we have had success is that we treat them as athletes, not as little girls," said Tim Dowd, 27, a biology teacher and fifth-year coach. "The most important thing is that they have fun. We keep it in perspective that this isn't professional sports, this is high school. The girls run because they know they should, not because they have to."

"We're athletes first," said Kelly O'Hara, a freckle-faced senior. "It's not like we're females and we can't work as hard as the guys. We do work as hard as the guys. But we have a lot of fun. That's part of the reason for our success ."

"Coach Dowd has a lot to do with it. Through Coach Dowd, I have gotten better and better. It's a subtle thing . . . . He makes you have an attitude to get better and better. Other schools might have girls that have potential to be good, but they don't have the coaching we have."

In cross country, a team of seven races around a measured course, usually two-and-a-half to three miles for high school, along dirt trails and grassy fields. The finishing positions of the first five runners on each team are added together.

The team with the lowest score is declared the winner. The sport is commonly confused with track, where the distance events are contested around a circular oval of pavement.

"We push ourselves more than he Dowd does," said Erin Keogh, a sophomore in a class by herself. She has already posted the best times ever for nearly every course on which she has run. Her winning time at last week's regional meet was nearly one minute ahead of her nearest competitor.

Keogh is a "superstar" amidst a team of superstars, and for most coaches, that might hinder the team concept. But part of the reason for Dowd's success has been his ability to deal with it.

"We all count as much as anyone else," explained Alyson Kelley, a senior. "Every girl on our team gets coached," said Dowd. "They all get treated equally. I don't give Erin any special treatment. I tell my girls from time to time that we have so much depth that we could miss our top two and still win."

While Keogh attracts the publicity wherever she runs, the girls are very conscious of team unity. Half of the sport is the team effort, where the sense of unity pushes the frontrunners to stretch out the lead and pulls the rest of the team to its best efforts.

"There's a lot more to cross country than the top person," said Kelley. "It's not that Erin singles herself out, others single her out."

"We joke about the publicity," said O'Hara. "There is always someone left out. It doesn't divide us though. We joke about it. We are so together that it psyches us up and, and we psyche other people out. We are so spoiled to have each other."

"Now it's like a dynasty," Kelley kids. "Once you get going and winning, it attracts people."

Cross country has been a part of athletic competition since the early days of the Romans and the Greeks. It wasn't until recently, however, that women were allowed to run in long-distance races.

Katherine Switzer broke the barrier by completing the Boston Marathon in 1967, at a time when women were barred from the all-men's race. And more recently, Joan Benoit, gold medalist in the first-ever Olympic marathon in Los Angeles and world record-holder in the women's marathon, has been an inspiration to running women worldwide. The girls say that cheerleaders may be losing their status; today's girls want to play the games, not cheer from the sidelines.

"It the women's Olympic marathon was a great accomplishment for women," said O'Hara.

"Girl jocks are respected at this school," Kelley stated. "But a lot of other girls are threatened by it their athletic abilities . They see us as skinny. They ask, why do we run?"

But for all of their dedication to their sport, their participation in school is not limited to running. The seven girls who comprise the varsity team boast an average 3.78 grade-point average. Said Juliet Planicke, a sophomore: "We want to be seen as nice girls and students of Langley High."