Unknown to most local sports fans, the best team in the state isn't wearing pads and helmets and clamoring for Heisman Trophys. For that matter, the BYU football team isn't even No. 1 in Provo, if you believe the national polls.

That distinction belongs to BYU's men's and women's cross country teams. Not that anyone knows about them. Most people don't even know what cross country is, let alone the runners. They think cross country is something you do on summer vacation.Definition: Cross country is a footrace that takes place, not on tracks or streets, but over hills, over dales, over dusty trails (hence, the origination of the song; hence, the name of the sport).

At BYU, they do this better than almost anyone else in the land. With little fanfare, the women's team has climbed to No. 2 in

the latest national cross country polls, behind Villanova; the men's team is No. 8. Their bids for national championships will begin in earnest on Saturday, when they compete against 39 other teams in the NCAA District 7 Cross Country Championships at Rose Park (beginning at 11 and noon). The top two teams advance to nationals.

BYU should qualify both of its teams. Aside from their school, there are similarities between the men's and women's teams. Both teams carry composite grade point averages of about 3.3. Four of the top six runners on the women's team are former walk-ons. Four of the top seven men's runners are former walk-ons. Included among those runners are seven freshmen and sophomores. What's more, while many of the top collegiate teams are composed of Kenyans, Mexicans, Irishmen, etc., Team BYU was Made In the USA. Of the top six runners on both teams, only one is a foreigner.

Imagine that. An American university with American athletes who attend class, pull good grades, compete for fun and free (at least for a while) and win. Who would have thought . . .

Curiously, neither of BYU's No. 1 runners is what you'd call a born star. Carl Hansen and Nicole Birk both had to walk-on, and both interrupted their collegiate careers with lengthy vacations from running.

Hansen was jogging around the BYU track one afternoon two years ago when Coach Sherald James - the Cougars' distance guru - spotted him. "You could tell just by the way he moved that he could be great," said James.

Hansen had run in high school, but had failed even to qualify for the Oregon state meet. He competed for Ricks College for one year and then left on a mission. Two years later he returned and enrolled at BYU, but he didn't so much as even jog for two more years. "I was married and going to school," he recalls. "I thought it was a little too much responsibility. I thought running was not something I should be doing. I thought I should be supporting my family."

But at the urging of a former Ricks teammate, Hansen eventually returned to running in 1988, after a four-year layoff. Then James spotted him and invited him to try out for the team. After a couple of so-so years, he has blossomed this season, placing among the top 10 in major invitationals in Colorado, Ogden, Provo and Arkansas. But his teammates - Dave Spence, Brandon Rhoades, Dave Baca and Doug Hobbs - are rarely far behind. A fifth-year senior who is working on his master's degree in health science, Hansen has finally reached peak form and just in the nick of time.

So has Birk, whose on again, off again career is on again. Rather than attend Utah on an athletic scholarship, she paid her own way to attend BYU and to try out for the team. Before that she competed for American Fork High for two years, where, thanks to a wrong turn, she failed to qualify for state in cross country. Things went wrong at BYU, too. During her freshman year she underwent knee surgery and wasn't able to run again for two years. "I've had the worst luck," she says. Aside from a bum knee, she has endured tendinits and pulled muscles, but so far nothing has slowed her this year. She was fifth in the Stanford Invitational and seventh in the pre-national meet in Knoxville.

Birk is the lone senior on the team, which also includes Leanne Whitesides, Dorota Buczkowska, Tonya Todd, Sondra Gibb, Angela Lee and Tara Laws. Together they make up what is likely the best cross country team ever assembled in Utah. For Coach Patrick Shane, its the payoff for resourcefulness and persistence.

Shane recruited Buczkowska from her native Poland. It took years and lots of unreturned letters. Shane finally flew to Poland to make a personal appeal. He signed Buczkowska and learned that the Polish government had been holding his letters. ("While I was there I sent post cards home," he notes dryly. "They're still arriving.")

If Shane had to fly half-way around the world to get Buczkowska, he had only to walk out of his office door to discover Gibb. She was stretching in the fieldhouse when Shane walked by one day. "I did something I haven't done since high school," he recalls. "I recruited the hallway. It was intuition, but I kept thinking this is stupid."

A former high school sprinter - and not a good one at that - Gibb was talked into trying out for the distance team. She battles Lee, another walk-on, for the team's fifth spot. Who knows, she might be the difference between second place and a national title for the Cougars. Now that would be something to make people notice them.