With the realization that only two races remain before their collegiate cross-country careers come to an end, Penn’s three senior harriers are determined to make their final miles of competitive running their swiftest yet.
After finishing ninth out of 27 at the Penn State Invitational nearly two weeks ago, the Red and Blue will travel to the Bronx, N.Y. on Friday for the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships.
It’s a meet that weighs mightily on the minds of seniors Chris Baird, Luke Grau and Phil Cawkwell.
As freshmen, the trio was part of a Quakers squad that captured third place at Heps, but the past two autumns, success has eluded Penn’s distance specialists, who placed last in both 2008 and 2009.
With a final opportunity to test the aerobic mettle of their Ivy rivals at Van Cortlandt Park’s storied cross-country course, Baird, Grau and Cawkwell have made the Oct. 29 race the focus of their season, and seek to “go out with a bang” as Grau, who led the team at Penn State, remarked.
The three are all aiming for top-10, All-Ivy finishes and, according to Baird, “motivation is our biggest strength.”
And he is confident that the piles of worn running shoes and thousands of miles that the team has accumulated since the beginning of summer will pay dividends.
Baird’s confidence also rests on the strong performances of both Cawkwell and freshman standout, Conner Paez.
Cawkwell, one of this season’s “big surprise[s]” according to coach Charlie Powell, led the team in its second-place finish at the Iona Meet of Champions, where the Quakers covered the same hilly course they will run at Heps.
Paez, meanwhile, was Penn’s third finisher at the Paul Short Invitational and has consistently finished in the Quakers’ top five.
Both will need to continue performing as they have — or even better — if Penn expects to meet its goal of finishing fourth at Heps in front of Brown, Cornell, Harvard and Yale. Unfortunately for the Quakers, they lack the requisite depth to compete with perennial Ivy powerhouses Princeton, Dartmouth or last year’s champion Columbia.
Despite impressive performances from Penn’s top seven — Baird finished in front of the Lions’ top runner at the Paul Short Invite — Columbia still defeated the Quakers handily.
A large spread between Penn’s first and fifth runners at Heps — in contrast to the Lions’ strong running pack — will dash any hopes of improving four places from last year.
Yet the triptych of seniors remains optimistic about Penn’s chances. The sudden realization that “this is it” keeps Cawkwell motivated for his final Heps appearance.
After the meet at Penn State and an impressive track workout earlier this week, the seniors will have precious little time to prepare and make any strategic adjustments before their last Heps.
And they will have 6.25 miles to race before they cross the familiar Heps finish line for the final time.
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