The Penn women's cross country team stepped to the starting line at the Lafayette Invitational on Saturday as a rag-tag group of undisputed underdogs. They arrived as a Major League-esque motley crew of freshmen, walk-ons, transfers, soccer players and figure skaters. They were wearing the suits of a program that looked to be drowning last year -- a Penn program that finished ninth at Lafayette last year and dead last in Heps, the most important meet of the year. But somehow, some way, Penn forgot that it wasn't supposed to be a factor in yesterday's race. The Quakers plowed through the cornfields, soared over the rolling hills, knifed through the humidity. And finished second. No, it wasn't quite the Disney ending. And no, in a meet with more than a third of the schools coming out of Division III, second place doesn't quite radiate its normal luster. But taking the silver -- just five points behind winner Moravian College -- gave Penn something it hasn't had for a long time. Hope. Of the top five runners on Saturday, only one -- junior Samantha Desposito, who was fourth overall -- had ever run a cross country race in college before. And three of the other four had never run a cross country race, period. Walk-on sophomore Kristen Koch (third place) and freshman Cristen Butler (22nd place) were both soccer players in high school, while freshman Abbi Gleeson (11th) was a figure skater. Freshman Vanita Spagnolo (10th) did run cross country for Southampton High School (N.Y.), but Saturday marked her first college meet. "The team's so young and inexperienced," Penn assistant coach Crickett Batz-Shaklee said. "A lot of them really had no idea what they were doing. They just went down there and ran hard." Butler, fifth on the team on Saturday, was no exception. The Westwood, Mass., native had never ran a race longer than 800 meters. "I was completely clueless," Butler said. "I had no idea how to pace it, so I just kind of guessed." Butler stayed with teammates Meredith Rossner and Emily Logan for most of the race, and then she used her speed to finish the 6,000-meter course in 22 minutes and 52 seconds. Butler was 46 seconds behind Koch, who was only beaten by a pair of Moravian runners -- Emily Shertzer and Heidi Wolfeberger. Koch was just three seconds faster than Desposito, who crossed the line just a second before Spagnolo. And all finished in the top five overall. Last year, Rossner was the team's top finisher. She placed 21st. On Saturday, Butler, the team's fifth runner, placed 22nd. "It's certainly a heck of an improvement from last year," Batz-Shaklee said. And with such a dearth of experience, further improvement would appear to be inevitable. "There's definitely talent here," Spagnolo said. And Penn has already reaped some of that harvest of talent. The Quakers, with 45 points, finished far ahead of Division 1 schools Lafayette (167), La Salle (219), Rider (252) and Seton Hall (286). But the depth of Moravian -- all five of its runners were in the top-16 -- was a little too much for the upstart QuakersComments powered by Disqus
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