It has to be one of the most unlikely places to find a top cross country team. After all, Gonzaga High School is located in the heart of Washington on North Capitol Street, just a few blocks from Union Station and the Capitol.

There are no long, green hills to run on and the school's only shadows come from the Government Printing Office across the street.

Still, the Eagles won the Metro Conference title last season and are off to a strong 1987 start. They easily won the Woodward Relays, placing three pairs in the top 10 and outscoring second-place Rockville, 17-37.

And the Eagles quickly answered those who argue that a relay-style cross country meet is not necessarily a valid indicator of a team's ability to win over rugged, three-mile distances.

After the Woodward Relays, Gonzaga finished third in the Lake Forest Invitational in Delaware without the services of one of the team's top five scorers who remained home with an illness.

Two weeks ago, the Gonzaga runners finished second to Northern Virginia power Lake Braddock, 44-89, in the seeded section of the Pallotti Invitational. In finishing second, Gonzaga beat Salesianum of Delaware, the team that won at Lake Forest.

"It's been a gradual progression," said Will Phillips, 32, the fifth year head coach.

Another contributing factor to Gonzaga's success is the fact that, except for two transfer students, the bulk of Phillips' 43-man team has been with him since they were freshmen. Those runners are predominately seniors this year.

"Every year, we try to shoot for a little higher goals," Phillips said. "Ultimately, we'd like to be competitive with the best in the area. We haven't been up there in the past, but this year, we can be."

Perhaps the most telling factor for Gonzaga has been the ability of its runners to overcome obstacles foreign to their suburban rivals.

For hard, strength-building workouts, for example, the team runs quarter-mile intervals on a misshapen, 300-yard, dirt-and-cinder track that is, in reality, nothing more than a scar on the unkept field adjacent to the school.

And on easy days, the boys must car pool or crowd into an ancient van to get to the C&O Canal or another relatively uncluttered site in the city.

On the rare occasion when their practice miles are restricted to the immediate area around the school, the team has to take precautions that suburban school athletes would rarely even consider.

"The guys who go to Gonzaga, they know they have to run together when we're running around the school," said senior Tim House. "It's just the way it is -- the safety procedure when you're running in D.C."

It is very difficult to find five young men capable of running three successive miles in less than five minutes each at any school, much less one located in the heart of a major city. Then, those athletes must have the willingness to put in the enormous amount of work necessary to improve.

One such athlete is junior Sekou Coleman, whose first name means champion in an African dialect. Last year, in his first experience with organized track, he ran a 4:40 mile. Phillips then recruited him for the cross country team.

"{At first} I had a half-hearted attitude," said Coleman, 15, who transferred from Carroll one year ago. "I wasn't committed and dedicated all the way. I didn't see myself as much of a cross country runner. I didn't think I could handle three miles and I thought I'd be ninth or 10th on the team."

Over the summer, team members were required to cover 300 miles. Coleman ran 344 and went to a cross country camp. He began the season at the head of the team.

"I still don't like cross country that much; I still look at it as practice for track," he said. "However, my performance has shown I'm as much a part of the team as the other members. I've got a responsibility to give as much as I can and help out as much as I can."

At the other end of the spectrum is House, who was expected to be the top runner this year after a solid season last year that culminated in a 4:30 mile in the spring. But the senior is in a slump. Though he works as hard as ever, probably harder by his calculations, his times have gotten considerably slower.

He is the fifth man, the final scoring position on a seven-man squad in which the duty of the final two non-scoring positions is to displace scorers from other teams. He continues to train every day, faithful that he will return to his old form.

"I just have to keep practicing hard, and hopefully, I'll hit it one day," he said. "I want to improve a lot."

House swam competitively as a youngster before following his older brother Joe onto the track. In these last few months, which have seen him drop from first to fifth for no apparent reason, he has maintained a sense of humor.

"I know I'm in a slump, a real slump," he laughed, emphasizing the last words. "But I know I'm gonna hit something one of these days. I'll flourish, perhaps."

Between Coleman and House there are twins Greg and Dave Yahn, ranked first and third, respectively, in the senior class, and fourth man Scott Drury, a senior transfer from Wilson.

Phillips evaluates his team's success in a textbook manner. "I'm very fortunate -- they're smart athletes," he said. "They may not all be blessed with talent, but they're willing to learn and have a desire to improve."

House, however, perhaps because of his humbling experience, puts things in a different perspective.

"It's hard to say what makes a difference," he said, pausing to choose his words. "It's sort of hard to explain. It's like family, that's what it is. That's what the school teaches -- men for others."