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The Penn men's cross country team continues to hold out hope for this Saturday's NCAA District Championships in Easton, Pa. Its top five runners are in good shape and ready to prove their talent, but it will take stellar races from all five to make up for last week's disappointing results at the Heptagonal Championships. Heps was supposed to be Penn's chance to earn the respect it deserves as a top team in its conference, which includes all of the Ivy League and Navy. Instead, the Quakers came in seventh out of nine teams. Their top five runners -- one of whom was forced to drop out of the race with cramps -- failed to make noise at the front of the pack at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Given this disappointing outcome, the Quakers need to finish in the top two at Districts in order to automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships, which will be run in Ames, Iowa, on November 20. According to Penn coach Charlie Powell, the Red and Blue are a long shot to cross the tape first or second up in Easton this weekend. "I need five good solid races," Powell said. "My goal is to beat the teams we know we can beat." Powell is optimistic that his top five runners, now healthy, are prepared to run with everything they have. As far as nationals go, the Quakers have more hope for individuals earning a chance to run than for Penn making it to the championships as a team. Senior Bryan Kovalsky and junior Matt Gioffre have had consistently impressive races this season. Kovalsky has proven himself a leader for the team, and Gioffre has come into his own as a top runner. Both are expected to prove themselves to be strong competition at Easton. Junior Anthony Ragucci also has to be considered a threat this weekend. A gamer who often has a knack for passing runners down the stretch, Ragucci has as good shot to do well on the 10-kilometer course at Districts. The Quakers performed well at Districts last fall, finishing seventh out of 27 squads assembled. Although the team failed to qualify for NCAAs as a whole in 1999, then-seniors Scott Clayton and Sean MacMillan earned individual invitations by finishing third and eighth at Districts, respectively. Penn's season thus far has been a mix of successes and let-downs. The successes such as the La Salle Invitational in September were impressive and boded well for the team. Since then, the Quakers have done well, but have failed to live up to their promise. Saturday's race marks a definite shot at redemption. There is no reason, however, to look at the season as a loss. If anything, Penn's real success lies in its ability to come together as a team, fill a leadership vacuum left by last year's graduating seniors and take the team's goals and practices more seriously than in previous years.

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