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Junior Thomas Awad took home the first individual Heps title for Penn since 1975 on Saturday at Princeton.

Photo: Michele Ozer

Saturday may have started inauspiciously for Penn cross country, but it ended with history being made.

After the women’s team was unable to break through at Heptagonals — finishing last as a team in the Ivy championship meet — junior Thomas Awad took first in the men’s race, leading his team to an impressive third place finish.

The Red and Blue couldn’t take home the team title, but Awad was the star of the day.

Coming off of a meet victory two weeks ago at the same Princeton course, Awad was able to make his way through the 8,000-meter course in 24:24, securing the first individual title for the Quakers in just under 40 years.

“I’ve had a couple alums come up and talk to me about what a big deal it is,” Awad said. “I’m just trying to represent the school as best as I can.”

With the runner-up finishing just a second behind, Awad needed to dig deep to earn the victory.

“We were neck-and-neck with about 200 meters to go, and I realized how windy it was,” he said. “So I kind of just settled in behind him, let him do the work on the windy stretch and kicked in for the win.”

It took a team effort for the men to break through as a team though, and senior Conner Paez — who placed 15th — was a huge contributor.

“It was a big-time senior effort ... his best race of the year by far,” coach Steve Dolan said of Paez.

After sustaining a difficult injury earlier in his career, the senior captain has persevered to become one of the team’s most reliable performers. With his surprising romp through Saturday’s rainy course, Paez finished just one spot away from earning second-team All-Ivy honors.

Sophomores Brendan Shearn and Nick Tuck along with junior Brendan Smith rounded out the top five for the men’s squad, earning the men’s first top-three finish since 2007.

“Three years ago, our first guy in was 52nd place,” Dolan noted. “Today, we had seven guys in by 52nd place.”

The breakthrough result was the culmination of several years of progress, and those involved with the program have high hopes for the team’s chances over the final weeks of the season.

“We really have a shot to actually make it [to Nationals] if we have another big day,” Awad said.

It was a different story for the women’s squad.

After showing some promise throughout the year, the women’s team failed to score better than any of the other Ivy squads, starting the day off slow for the program. Dolan chalks the underwhelming result up to the team’s lack of firepower up front.

“I thought we ran hard,” he said. “But we just don’t have someone right now who can get us a lower number, which is essential in cross country.”

A standout for the Quakers was Elyssa Gensib, who finished first for the Quakers and 22nd overall in the 6,000m event.

The Whiting sisters finished together within the top 35 finishers, but it was too little for the Red and Blue to make up ground on the rest of the field.

Dolan conceded that it was not “the step forward [the women] were hoping to make,” but recognizes that they have room to grow.

“We have a class with no one graduating,” he said. “I actually think we’re deeper than last year. We just lack that low number presence.”

Both teams will look to take the next step forward at Regionals in two weeks.

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