When Ryan Murphy was a sixth-grader, his middle school track team needed a coach, so his mother, Vickie, applied and was hired. By signing her name, she was unwittingly laying the groundwork for the Northern cross-country team's current run of success.

Ryan, now a junior at Northern High School, carries an undefeated dual meet record into Wednesday's Southern Maryland Athletic Conference championship. And Vickie Murphy, who took the Patriots' helm three years ago, has turned a boys' program that was 2-9 when she started into a solid 8-2 unit.

And then there's the girls' team, which won all 10 of its dual meets this season and was led by Coach Murphy's daughter, freshman Keely Murphy.

"The program definitely needed some revamping, because it was a sport where any kid who wanted a letter could just walk on and get one," Vickie Murphy said. "We had bigger numbers, but a worse record, and I wanted to attract kids who were more serious about it."

She couldn't have asked for two better runners than her son and daughter. That could be because Coach Murphy was a three-year all-American runner at Villanova in the early 1980s.

"I'm sure there's some genetics at work there, but I've seen kids with more talent come through who didn't work as hard and weren't as successful," Vickie Murphy said.

"It can be frustrating, because it overshadows all the work you've done," Keely said. "But it also makes you want to work harder to show people that it's not just genes, it's not just because you're the coach's daughter."

Ryan and Keely have certainly benefited from having mom behind the whistle, mainly because she can act as a full-time trainer.

"The big advantage as a parent and coach is being able to have control over their daily schedule, making sure they get the rest and the nutrition they need," said Vickie Murphy, who also runs the high school's media center. "A lot of kids walk away after practice, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, I hope they have a good meal tonight, I hope someone's home to cook for them.' "

Although Ryan is team captain along with senior Kevin Peil, he said his mom treats him no differently from any other runner on the team.

"The team expects that I know more about running because the coach is my mom," he said. "They think I have more insight into the workouts or plans for the race, but she keeps them pretty secret, even from me."

The same goes for how he relates to Keely, even though his goals dovetail with hers.

"She's the most talented runner in the family -- when we're running, though, she's not really my sister," Ryan said. "But it's great to see her run and be successful. It would be great if next year when I'm a senior we could both win SMAC."

Ryan is one of three favorites -- along with Leonardtown's Brian Isleib and Patuxent's Paul Travers -- to win this year's individual title.

The three juniors have battled since their freshman year in track and cross-country. Murphy beat Isleib both years in the indoor mile as well as last year in the outdoor mile, but trailed Isleib and Travers in the outdoor two-mile. Travers didn't run indoor last year.

"Brian [Isleib] seems to step up when I'm around, but every year I know I'm going up against both of them, and it could go to anyone," Ryan said.

Ryan had the flu the day Northern took on Patuxent, so he and Travers, who also is undefeated, haven't faced off. He and Travers have accounted for Isleib's only losses.

Patuxent is easily the boys' team to beat, but Northern has had its best year in recent memory thanks to three freshmen -- Andrew Bauder, Charles Harris and Collin Jackson -- stepping into the top five.

Keely, meanwhile, won't be widely expected to upset Patuxent senior Susan Hendrick or Westlake junior Ashley Owen, the only runners to beat Keely this season.

"I'm kind of nervous because I'll be racing Ashley and Susan all at once, but not much is expected of me because I'm a freshman," said Keely, who finished second to Hendrick, last year's state runner-up, by 30 seconds in her first high school race.

However, all eyes will be on her and teammates Amy Agnolutto, Katie Faulkner, Anastasia Wieroniey and Brianna Wilson to complete their remarkable run with a SMAC team trophy.

"I wasn't expecting to win very much this year, so I'm kind of surprised, but to go undefeated is just a phenomenal thing to happen your freshman year," Keely said. "Our team is really great together. They're all like big sisters to me."

Vickie Murphy, Patriots cross-country coach, relishes the advantages of being coach and mother to junior Ryan and freshman Keely.