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In her first collegiate race, freshman Abby Hong finished first, proving herself to be an integral part of the track & field program moving forward.

Photo: Michele Ozer

One of just two freshmen running with the “A-team” for Penn women’s cross country, Abby Hong is no stranger to finding herself in select groups on the track.

Hong’s reputation precedes her, which is something the Californian’s opponents have rarely managed to do when racing her to the finish line. The first-year Quakers runner — fresh out of Mira Costa High School — is coming off of a senior campaign which saw her qualify for and place 30th in the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in San Diego, a meet in which only 10 student-athletes apiece from four regions compete. Hong impressed students and coaches alike during her fantastic senior year, including Penn coach Steve Dolan.

“I actually went out to San Diego and watched her compete in the National Championships, so that was really a lot of fun,” Dolan said. “We knew she’d be a great match for Penn, so we’re excited she’s here.”

While Penn was eager to get Hong on its team, it took a long time for her to decide whether she wanted to be on any team after her high school career.

“I visited here really late — I came here in mid-February,” Hong said, “Most girls came in the early fall, but I was kind of late to decide whether or not I wanted to run in college, because I kind of got better at running during my senior year. But when I visited Penn, I really liked the team dynamic, and how coach Dolan [is so] positive.

“And it was a good mix, I wanted to have somewhere that was academically good, and a place where I could be a part of the team.”

Hong has gotten off to a very solid start as a collegiate athlete, winning her very first race (the 4-kilometer Big 5 Invitational) and garnering Ivy Rookie of the Week honors before placing fifth among Penn runners (117th overall) in an extremely competitive 5K Notre Dame Invitational. At the Princeton Invitational, Hong’s first career 6K, she was the sixth Penn runner to cross the finish line and the 52nd runner overall, helping the Red and Blue to an Ivy-best third-place finish in their rival’s home meet.

Hong, who also finished sixth in the State Championships and ninth in the Regional Championships last year, is certainly missed back at Mira Costa, but has a large following at home, according to her high school coach Renee Smith.

“It’s great to see [her doing so well] because everybody from here is still following her,” Smith said. “So I get a ton of people asking ‘How’s Abby doing?’ or ‘I heard about Abby last week!’ and we’re all pretty excited about her. Not everyone does so well in college. It’s hard to make it, especially in a D1 program. So everyone back here is really excited that she’s doing so well.”

Hong — who had never raced before high school — went from being the seventh or eighth runner on the team as a freshman to being the best on the squad and one of the best in the nation as a senior. As for competing with the top runners at the collegiate level, she realizes that she has a tall task in front of her.

“I think [my performance has] been pretty good so far, but it’s definitely an adjustment from high school to college,” Hong said. “You have so many people here who are more at the same level. But it’s been really nice to have all these people to train with.

“It’s really about the mental switch. You’re always going to run against better and faster people in these races, so you have to have confidence in yourself that you can be up there, that you can make it.”

Only time will tell if Hong ultimately makes it, but she’s off to a solid start on campus, and she has people from coast-to-coast rooting for her.

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