AS DEFENDING champions Morpeth tightened their grip on the First Division team trophy former North-East Harrier League front-runners Sunderland are faced with a last-ditch fight for survival after another disappointing performance in the penultimate fixture at Alnwick.

Champions 24 times since 1980 and never relegated from the top flight, the Wearsiders, hit by an exodus of their top athletes moving away, were an embarrassing tenth and last in the previous meeting at Wrekenton and a slight improvement to eighth in Northumberland saw them sink further into the relegation mire, only one point above an automatic relegation place with one race - re-arranged for Wrekenton on March 22 - remaining.

Sunderland have 37 points, just above Tynedale (38) and local rivals Sunderland Strollers (44), who look doomed to go down.

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Morpeth, whose senior men's team won the silver medals in the North of England Cross Country Championships at the end of January, extended their lead over challenging Durham City to three points after finishing behind Tyne Bridge, who have impressed in their first season in the top division after a series of promotions since joining the League.

The senior men's handicap race at Alnwick was won by North Shields Polytechnic's slow-pack runner, Graeme Cook, who took full advantage of his five minutes' start to win by 58 seconds.

Morpeth's new recruit, Carl Avery, who was promoted to the medium pack and had his start cut by 2½ mins after his victory at Wrekenton, still managed to finish third, again leading the Morpeth team home.

Morpeth's Emma Holt, giving away four minutes start from the fast pack still managed to finished third in the senior women's race, won by North Shields Poly's slow-packer Stephanie Dann, who finished two minutes clear of former North-East and Northern junior champion Mary Ferrier.

Results - Senior Men: 1 G Cook (North Shields Poly, Slow Pack +5 mins) 36 mins 32 secs; 2 J English (Tyne Bridge, SP) 37.30; 3 C Avery (Morpeth, Medium Pack + 2½ mins) 37.49. Fastest times: 1 D Jenkin (Durham City, Fast Pack, scr) 33.57; 2 L Timmins (Morp, FP) 34.07; 3 B Douglas (Dur C, FP) 34.12.

Teams - Div 1: 1 Tyne Bridge 69 pts; 2 Morpeth 101; 3 Durham City 135. Div 2: 1 Heaton 114; 2 Elswick 139; 3 Crook 153. Div 3: 1 Blackhill 37; 2 Gosforth 81; 3 Blyth 183.

Senior Women: 1 S Dann (North Shields Poly, SP +4 mins) 28.09; 2 M Ferrier (Gateshead, SP) 30.15; 3 E Holt (Morp, FP scr) 30.37. Fastest times: 1 E Holt 36.37; 2 T Millmore (Birtley, FP) 27.10; 3 J Hodgson (Morp, FP) 27.32.

Teams - Div 1: 1 North Shields Poly 18; 2 Gateshead 25; 3 Heaton 27. Div 2: 1 Birtley 16; 2 Alnwick 30; 3 Saltwell 56.