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Junior Ashley Montgomery has broken out as the top runner on Penn women's cross country this year.

This season, Ashley Montgomery has made it look easy.

The breakout junior has been first across the line for Penn women’s cross country in each of her races thus far. Finished 11th among a stacked field at the Notre Dame Invitational. Dropped consistently elite 5K times south of 17 minutes. Not to mention her outstanding performance earlier in the year in outdoor track.

And if you told her any of this would have been possible heading into freshman year?

“I probably would have laughed.”

That’s because only three years ago, it wasn’t even in Montgomery’s plans to be a collegiate runner at all. In fact, throughout much of her high school career, she had another sport on her mind.

“It’s almost like she ran track and cross country part time because she was really into soccer,” coach Steve Dolan said. “So, in all honesty, her times were not very competitive compared to Division I running standards.”

“It wasn’t something that I had planned,” Montgomery added. “I always thought that I was going to end up doing soccer.”

However, Montgomery ultimately decided that, given the opportunity to pursue a Penn education and Dolan’s enthusiasm, Penn track and cross country was the right path for her. And her results on the course and the track suggest that she did ultimately choose the right path to take.

However, that doesn’t mean that it was the smoothest path by any means.

“I was so sore,” Montgomery said with a laugh, remembering her first summer of training before college. “I was like, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to run in college and be good.’”

Ultimately, though, Montgomery’s was able to overcome any early struggles with pure force of will and determination.

“She’s a really great competitor,” Dolan said. “When she came to Penn, it’s just amazing how quickly her times dropped.”

Dolan is quick to praise Montgomery in terms of her determination and work ethic, terms that would be equally appropriate for a scrappy walk-on doing anything she can just to maintain a spot on the team. For her part, Montgomery’s humble, understated demeanor fits this characterization perfectly.

“Even if I know that I can’t be the best at something, I need to know that I gave everything I had,” she said.

But whether they want to accept it or not, she’s a lot more than that. She’s a bona fide star.

Halfway through the season, Montgomery has not only established herself as one of the top runners on the team, but also as one of the top runners in the Ivy League.

Even she is, however hesitantly, starting to realize the enormity of her potential, admitting that she has personal hopes for a top-10 individual finish at the Ivy League championships.

What makes Montgomery’s rise to the upper regions of Ivy League running even more exciting is how quickly it’s appeared to transpire. After all, just a year ago she was nowhere to be found in the team’s top three finishers.

But to hear Dolan tell it, Montgomery’s vast improvement is no recent development.

“She’s a very talented runner,” he said. “Each year she’s gotten better and better, and now, for the first time, she’s extending that fitness out to 5K, 6K.”

In that sense, Montgomery’s improvement mirrors that of Penn’s cross country program as a whole.

Three years ago — much like Montgomery — the Quakers were struggling for relevance in the cross country. But after steady improvement over the past several years and a string of recent success, both the men’s and women’s squads have jumped dramatically to the upper reaches of regional rankings, with the former even breaking into the top 30 spots nationally.

“I think that’s our focus now — to have a great team result,” Dolan said. “And Ashley’s clearly one of the leaders of that.”

So both Ashley Montgomery and Penn cross country as a whole are on the rise. And as improbable as it may have seemed three years ago, it may not be long until they find themselves together at the top.

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