A trio of juniors, Jeff Pajak of Annandale, Woodbridge's Andrew Hudson and Erin Keogh of Langley, return to pace Northern Virginia cross country this year.

While all three were either the best in the state or close to it last year, it appears the competition might have shifted and may even have increased in intensity.

As a sophomore, Keogh was undefeated last fall, winning the state AAA title at the University of Virginia. That helped Langley to its second first-place team finish in as many years. Keogh also took fifth in the Kinney Junior Olympics national cross country competition.

This fall she returns in better shape, according to Coach Timo Dowd, who is entering his fifth year at Langley. During his stay, the girls have finished second in the state once, have won it twice, and have lost only three meets in three years (none of the losses have come in the last two seasons).

" She is so fit, it's scary," Dowd said recently.

From all indications, Keogh will be as tough to beat as she was last year, when her smallest margin of victory in the 5,000 meters was more than 45 seconds. "She runs with me in workouts and she's as fit as she ended the year last year," Dowd said. "And that's much better than most people are. We'll pick up where we left off."

South Lakes senior Kathy Graves, who finished third in the state last year, is expected to set the pace early this year, having returned in top condition after a summer of running.

Another senior, Robinson's Tama Clare, finished fourth in the state last year, paving the way for a fourth place finish by the Rams. She is much stronger this year, according to Coach Dee Raynes

"She didn't do as much mileage over the summer, but it was better quality," Raynes said. "In terms of times, she's far above last year at this time."

Two newcomers to the area have settled in Lake Braddock's area, making Coach Andy Tysinger's team a contender this year. The Bruins came close last year, finishing within 12 points of Langley at the state meet to settle for runner-up.

"We almost pulled it off last year with a young team," said Tysinger. "This year they're more experienced and stronger. We'll contend with Langley, but until somebody proves otherwise, they're still the team to beat."

Boosting his chances of an upset are two juniors, Wendy Neely and Kim Marks. Neely was the state AA champion last year, running in Manchester colors. And Marks hailed from the Florida state champion cross country team and was a finalist in the state championship mile race.

Aimee Harms, a junior from Annandale, is given high hopes for the season from her coach, Bernie Forte.

"This little girl can run with the best in the state," he said. "She's in tremendous condition now; she's running with my first two boys."

Forte's two front-runners, Pajak and senior Dan Smith, aren't easily followed. Pajak displayed constant improvement last season, pushing the Annandale boys to a close runner-up spot in the state meet by finishing among the top six.

Along with Smith, juniors Claude Gibson and Chris Manard and senior Charlie Fall, a former quarter-miler, Forte is looking to reverse last year's state finish where Woodbridge downed Annandale by 13 points.

"Jeff is capable of being the best runner in the state," Forte said. "Right now he's running one minute faster than he was last year at this time."

Ironically, though, Pajak's burgeoning capabilities probably will not be a factor in the team's overall finish this year.

Woodbridge is going to be hard to beat. Under the tutelage of Ron Helmer, in his fourth year at the school, the boys cross country team has won the state the past two years. In Helmar's first year, Woodbridge finished second.

Hudson paces a group of four returning from last year's state championship team, on which he finished third in the state. With him this year are juniors Doug Stanton and Danny Ireland, who finished third and 10th, respectively, and senior Steven Kurtz.

But Woodbridge has problems similar to those of their rivals'.

"Those first four are really, really strong and in good shape," said Helmer. "Compared to last year, they're a better 1-4, but we're not as good at 5-6-7."

Behind Woodbridge and Annandale at last year's state meet was South Lakes. Part of the reason was senior Sandy Sanford, who finished sixth. Of Sanford, a year stronger and smarter, Coach Garnett Million said, "He's looking good. He should be able to repeat, if not improve on, his performance last year."

In AA, the Handley team that finished second in the state last year, paced by state champion Jason Morgan, has a different look this fall. Coach Pete Lowe expects to finish no worse than third or fourth this year.

Four of last year's varsity members return, led by seniors Mike Cooper, Dannie Loy and Charles Kilbourne and junior Kevin Dye. Sophomore Jerry Shimp, junior Bob Yancey and freshman Brian Whitaker will fill in the gaps.