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Junior Thomas Awad was the men's top finisher at the Main Line Invitational.

When you are taking the first step of a long journey, it helps to do so in familiar territory among familiar company. It’s a statement that seems to apply to human nature universally.

It also seems to be a philosophy wholeheartedly adopted by Penn cross country.

On Friday evening, the men’s and women’s squads started off their fall seasons with a bang, blowing away the neighborhood competition at the annual Big 5 Invitational.

Just a few miles away from campus on a gorgeous day at Fairmount Park’s Belmont Plateau, the Quakers looked every bit as comfortable as one might have expected they would.

Penn entered the race in a unique situation for the program in recent years: as contenders.

After impressing with young talent last year, the Quakers were ranked sixth and fourth in the preseason regional rankings for the men and women, respectively.

It was the Red and Blue’s first opportunity to live up to the preseason hype against their regional competition, and they did not disappoint.

The women started the proceedings off strong with an excellent display of team running in a 4000-meter race, with five Quakers finishing before a single opposing runner. Penn scored the minimum number of team points, a distant 36 away from second-place La Salle.

The top three — juniors Amy Darlington and Elyssa Gensib and freshman Abby Hong — finished just about simultaneously after 14:21.

“We went out in a pack — just like we were supposed to — and we stayed calm,” Darlington said. “I think we did a good job of running together and not trying to kill each other.”

“That’s the best race I’ve had in two years,” the captain added with a smile.

Hong’s success in her first collegiate race came as no surprise to her team.

“She was in the National Finals [in high school], and she’s looked good in every workout through preseason,” coach Steve Dolan said.

“I think she had a lot left,” Darlington added.

Villanova, a top regional contender, chose not to field a women’s team.

The men immediately followed the women’s outstanding performance with a performance of their own that was arguably even more impressive and dominant.

In their 6,000-meter race, the men registered the top seven overall finishers, beating second-place La Salle by an astounding 40 team points.

“There was a big parallel between the teams,” Dolan said. “Our goal was to run together as a team, and they did a really good job of that.”

Senior captain Conner Paez finished first with a time of 18:40.6, but four other Quakers — including last year’s breakout star, junior Thomas Awad — finished within three-tenths of a second of him.

“We did exactly what we wanted to,” Paez said. “We showed that we’re ready to have a good season.”

What makes the program’s performance even more impressive is that its top performers were able to increase their paces as the race went on and post negative splits.

“They did exactly what we were trying to do to a tee,” Dolan said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Like the women, the men did not face the full force of their Big 5 competition. Most notably, predicted regional top-dog Villanova fielded only a shell of its top squad. The program is fully aware of this, though.

“Instead of another workout, we wanted to use this race for development,” Dolan said. “For us, it’s a good chance to get everyone in the city together.”

Friday represented a solid first step, but it is time to move forward.

“A ton of us are in great shape right now,” Paez said. “We’re just looking forward to seeing what we can do when it’s really competitive.”

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