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Big 5 Cross Country Meet. Penn dominated Credit: Michele Ozer , Michele Ozer

I t’s time to take the training wheels off.

After having spent the past two years rebuilding, developing young talent and generally hanging out near the bottom of the campus fall sports totem pole, Penn cross country is ready to take the next step forward.

And this time, citing individual development as an end in and of itself won’t quite cut it.

Steve Dolan is entering his third year as Penn’s cross country (XC) coach, and individual development has certainly been his calling card.

He took over a program that was — quite frankly — in shambles. Accordingly, he had no choice other than to take his time and rebuild the program in the image of an Ivy contender.

And that’s exactly what he has done.

What he has (understandably) failed to provide in team results, he has more than made up for with solid recruiting and development of young athletes into a cohesive team unit.

But now, the athletes of Dolan’s first recruiting class are entering their junior year, and it’s lazy to say that the program is still rebuilding.

The program has the requisite stars.

Then-sophomore Thomas Awad set the running community ablaze last year with a remarkable third-place finish at XC Heptagonals , only to top himself with a world-beating spring track season. Meanwhile, then-freshman Cleo Whiting emerged as one of the top young talents in the Ivy League. Both of them will be looked upon to lead their squads on the course this year.

It has the supporting cast.

Both the men — with senior Conner Paez and sophomore Brendan Shearn — and the women, with junior Elyssa Gensib and sophomore Ashley Montgomery, have accrued a proven group of runners that can back up Awad and Whiting and produce strong team scores.

It’s also had a taste of success.

Both teams broke out with strong overall performances at last fall’s NCAA Regional meet and parlayed that success into solid spring track seasons.

But this taste of success was just that: a taste. A preview. Not the real thing.

Although there has been an overall trend of team improvement over the past two years, just about every sign that the program was ready to break out has been hampered by the inevitable inconsistency that has followed.

Dolan has downplayed the importance of team results, defending his team’s inconsistency based on its inexperience.

But with a significantly more experienced squad — and one that’s feeling increasingly like a “finished product” — this sort of rationalization will not hold nearly as much weight this year.

And it’s losing more weight by the minute.

Over the offseason, the men and women were recognized by the running community as increasingly relevant contenders, having been placed at fourth and sixth in the preseason Regional rankings, respectively.

These expectations were immediately supported, as both squads utterly dominated this past weekend’s Big 5 Invitational. The program showed a combination of youth, experience and team running that could prove deadly in the Ivy League.

This is not to say that the success of the program’s season depends entirely on its teams’ results.

Both squads seem to lack the production from seniors that other top Regional and Ivy squads will expect to receive this year. The women’s team in particular seems to be at least another year out from reaching its full potential.

Additionally, it remains to be seen how the team responds to increased expectations.

However, it’s simply not good enough to blatantly disregard team results anymore.

Dolan has spent his entire tenure at Penn focused on the development of his program, and the next logical step in this progression is team success.

The training wheels are off, and it’s time to enjoy the ride.

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