Westlake High School senior Carlos Hunt is one of the best cross-country runners in the Washington area, but he rarely gets the opportunity to show it. That's because Westlake--and the other 11 schools competing in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference--has a very different schedule from most Washington area cross-country teams.

The difference is that SMAC cross-country teams compete in far fewer invitational meets than do most schools in the Washington area. The invitational meets, almost always held on Saturday mornings, usually mix 15 to 35 schools from across the region and include the best runners. For the majority of the Washington area's cross-country programs, invitationals are the focus of the fall until postseason meets begin.

Hunt finished sixth in the Maryland 3A cross-country meet last fall, but will get few opportunities to face strong competition until the next state meet. His team is scheduled to run in just three invitationals this season.

"I think it kind of hurts me," Hunt said. "I'm not really in a strong region."

SMAC cross-country teams are permitted to compete in up to five invitationals during the regular season, but no team does that. The primary reasons, coaches say, are a demanding conference schedule and sometimes-prohibitive travel times for Saturday morning meets.

"I would like to do more invitationals, because you can see other people and competition that you will see down the road," Leonardtown Coach Joe Krafty said. "If I had to pick between one or the other, I would pick dual meets because of travel time. It breaks my heart when I have to put [students] on a bus at 5 a.m. and ride three hours. They get all cramped up, and then they are not in the mood to put forth their best effort."

SMAC teams run regular season meets on five consecutive Wednesdays, starting yesterday. During that stretch, the league's coaches often balk at having their runners compete in a second meet three days later.

The league meets, meanwhile, are used to crown the SMAC's regular season champion. Other schools around Washington do it differently. Centreville High School in Virginia, for instance, will run one tri-meet and two duals this season--with no titles at stake--and then compete for the AAA Concorde District title in a season-ending meet that includes all teams in the league. Along the way, Centreville will run in seven invitationals.

"There's a lot to say for race-specific situations," said Centreville Coach Matt Murray, the president of the Northern Virginia cross-country and track and field coaches' association. "You have to get those kids prepared to run with 20 schools, and that situation [can only be simulated] with invitationals."

River Hill Coach Earl Lauer said Howard County deemphasized midweek dual and tri-meets four or five years ago, after Long Reach and River Hill high schools opened. Howard schools used to run seven league dual meets during the regular season; now they run only two quad-meets and one tri-meet, leaving the rest of the season for invitationals.

"As a coach, I would prefer to have the option to explore more invitationals so the kids could get more exposure and competition," said Lauer, who is Maryland's high school cross-country chairman. "In Howard County, we moved away from dual meets because it did consume too many opportunities.

"You've got to go to invitationals, especially for the better kids. Even if you don't have a strong team, you have individuals who need better competition, and that's what invitationals provide."

Like Hunt, Northern senior Alexis Wieroniey will run three invitationals this season. She said she would like to run more.

"I would, especially since I am a senior, because at the big meets a lot of college scouts are there, and that's where you get noticed," said Wieroniey, an All-Extra runner last season. "I'm a senior and I'm running this year to run in college. I know [SMAC meets] are not going to help me for my goal next year."

Most Southern Maryland coaches, however, say they are happy with the current system. Runners still get quality training at SMAC schools, they say.

"Personally, I think they get more out of a better practice than an invitational," Northern Coach Jim Minderlein said. "A good practice does more for the training of an individual."

Said McDonough Coach Mark Whidden: "I try to tell my athletes to use [tri- and quad-meets] as a learning experience. As a team, we are training for the championships at the end of the year. I do think they help the team. Running in a big race with 90 to 100 guys, a lot of those athletes get lost in a crowd. At a smaller race, they can single out a No. 4 or No. 5 runner on another team."

But Patuxent Coach Prasad Gerard sees a drawback.

"I think in some ways the situation helps. It gets [SMAC teams] to race more, and it's actually a good thing for the kids," he said. "The only thing that hinders them is that their sights are lower. [They don't think] 'I need to aim higher than my general area.' "

CAPTION: Northern's Alexis Wieroniey, shown warming up last year, says invitational meets attract "a lot of college scouts."