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Senior Conner Paez finished his XC career off on a strong note, earning All-Region honors with a 23rd place finish on Friday.

The adage goes “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” but starting a distance race on the right foot sure can’t hurt.

Penn cross country will get to take its first steps of the season this Friday in the annual Big 5 Invitational race, hosted by Temple at its Belmont Plateau course. This early season contest between Penn, Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and Temple will provide both the men’s and women’s teams the opportunity to get their 2014 campaign set in the right direction.

Both squads enter this season ranked highly within its region. The men enter the fall ranked fourth in the Mid-Atlantic, while the women enter the fray in the sixth position.

For yet another year, Villanova will be the greatest obstacle that Penn will face in the early part of the season.

Villanova enters Friday’s race ranked second in the Mid-Atlantic on the women’s side, with the men claiming the top spot in the preseason rankings after winning the regional championship last year. The Quakers will race against this Big 5 rival four times in the next six weeks, and this race may be an excellent barometer for Penn’s ability to challenge the top programs in the region.

“While this might just be a stepping stone, I think we will actually do quite well,” coach Steve Dolan said. “I have been very impressed with the team’s overall fitness level and the work that has been done over the summer, so I think we can expect to see a very good team result.”

However, Dolan and his runners have more important things on their minds than team scores at this early stage.

“It’s been a while since most of us have been in a competitive race,” senior Conner Paez said. “So this race is really to help us transition and get ready for some of the more important races in October and November.”

“The focus of the race is not going as fast as we can right away,” junior Elyssa Gensib added. “We have a lot of team building we want to work on, and we want to focus now on the things that will set us up for success later.”

In addition, Penn’s newest batch of freshmen will make their debut wearing the Red and Blue on Friday, an occasion that is always a cause for excitement and optimism.

Last year, then-freshman Cleo Whiting placed third overall at this event in her first-ever collegiate race to start one of the best freshman seasons of any Penn women’s cross country runner. While there may not be a breakout star like Whiting emerging from the pack this year, hopes are high that the freshman class can make significant contributions to the team.

“The freshmen have trained really well in this preseason, and I’m very excited to see them go out and compete,” Dolan said.

“The burden of setting the pace will ultimately fall on the upperclassmen, which should give the freshmen the opportunity to get up and run with the group. After that, it’s all about running hard for the second half, and it should be fun to watch.”

Friday will be only the first hurdle in what is for some of these athletes an eight-month-long competition season, and putting the right foot forward could go a long way towards making it a success.

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