The lush, hilly cross-country courses where Sergiy Zubko competes these days are thousands of miles from where he used to run, in the streets of Kiev in the Urkaine, Torun, Poland, and Haifa, Israel, where his goal was not reaching a finish line.

"I just wanted to chase down other kids," the River Hill junior said, "and say, 'You're it.' "

The best in those games of tag were the fastest players, and Zubko said the transition to high school cross-country was natural. "You just have to be a little bit faster than everyone else to be good," Zubko said. "And I could tell that even then, playing tag, I was a little bit faster than the rest of the kids. So when I came to America five years ago, I didn't know what cross-country really was, but I thought I could run pretty fast so it might be a good sport for me."

Zubko established himself as one of the area's best runners last fall when he lost just two races before placing fourth at the Maryland 3A meet.

Last season's All-County runner of the year, Zubko is again leading the pack. He won both of his races entering the week -- including the Howard County Striders Invitational in 17 minutes 13.44 seconds on Friday -- and is a big reason why the River Hill boys' team will contend for a third state title in six seasons. The Hawks were second last season.

"Last year was a fluke because statistically, we were the best team, and we got overconfident and Urbana beat us," said River Hill senior Nick Keane, the only county runner to defeat Zubko last season, doing so in the County and 3A East Region championships. "We came so close to having that perfect season and we lost it at the end, and that's not going to happen this year."

River Hill also returns seniors Andrew Seelaus and Matt Fichman, who contributed to the Hawks' fourth county title in five years. Juniors Andrew Bank, Kevin McCoy and Andrew Sasser round out the seven-runner varsity boys' squad, giving River Hill what Coach Earl Lauer said could be the best team in the school's nine-year history.

"They came in here with the goal being to win the state title, and I didn't even need to tell them," Laurer said. "They felt they should have won it last year, but we ran one sub-par race and it cost us, so I think that's going to be a motivating factor this year."

The River Hill girls' team will have a harder time defending its county title. The Hawks return just three starters -- seniors Lindsay Sullivan and Anne Foreman and junior Bess Seelaus -- and will rely on freshmen and sophomores to help compete against Atholton and defending Maryland 2A champion Glenelg.

"We're basically a new team this year, and we're going to try to surprise some people," said Seelaus, who was second at the Striders Invitational in 21:57.87 to lead her team to an eighth-place finish.

Atholton won the girls' race with 88 points, ahead of Centennial (108), Glenelg (109), Churchill (117) and Mount Hebron (126).

The River Hill boys' team won with 39 points, ahead of Wilde Lake (68), Centennial (125), Atholton (129) and Glenelg (137).

Lauer attributes such success to the structure of the program. Though the runners churn out miles on the school track and athletic fields, classroom work is also an important part of their training.

Runners write down goals for each race and critique their preparation: How many runners am I going to pass in the last quarter-mile? When am I going to make my move toward the front of the pack? What grade would I give the nutritional value of food I've eaten in the past week? What grade would I give myself for training?

"Winning just doesn't happen, and it's not luck that our boys have won two state titles and finished in the top five in the state every year but one," Lauer said. "We have a system here the kids believe in because it works. I want them to understand the value of hard work because once they are successful, success breeds success."

River Hill has 102 runners -- 77 boys, 25 girls -- in the cross-country program, one of the largest in school history, and it's not by accident. Lauer mails letters to incoming freshmen during the summer inviting them to come out for the team, even if they have never run competitively.

"I tell the kid and the parents what we have to offer," Lauer said. "Being part of a team is a way to make friends, it's a good way to be physically fit, and we don't have any bench warmers. Everybody runs, and if you want to run on a very competitive level, then the chance is there."

"No other coach at River Hill sent me a letter," said freshman Kelly Miller, a first-year runner. "So I thought coming out would let me make friends and I would learn how to run, which will help me in the other sports I play, like basketball."

Said Keane: "The system Coach Lauer never changes, and you look at what cross-country at River Hill has done and the history speaks for itself. If you like running, you want to be a part of it."

River Hill's Sergiy Zubko became familiar with running while playing tag as a child. These days, it's hard for other runners to keep up with him.Wilde Lake's Katie Williams takes the lead en route to winning the Howard County Striders Invitational in 21 minutes 51.77 seconds."I thought I could run pretty fast so it might be a good sport for me," said Sergiy Zubko of cross-country.