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

Over the past few years, Penn men’s cross country has largely been a showcase for one of the top runners in the nation: Thomas Awad. And what a showcase it has been.

As a sophomore, Awad broke four minutes in the mile at the Penn Relays. Last year, he stepped up even further, winning multiple Heptagonal titles, including the all-important Ivy cross country championship. He is an All-American and a national power. And, incredibly, he has one year in Red and Blue remaining — it still remains to be seen just how far the senior star can push his success.

But last season, the Quakers proved they were much more than just a one-man show. After years of threatening to contend with the top teams in the Ancient Eight, they came up with a breakthrough third-place finish at Heptagonals, edging out Dartmouth and falling to only Princeton and Cornell in the league championship meet.

Of course, Awad led the way for his squad, posting an incredible time of 24:24 in the 8K race to pace the field, but he was by no means the sole reason for the Quakers’ success. After all, in 2013, Awad finished third, yet his team was only able to muster a somewhat forgettable sixth-place overall finish.

The true difference between those two years came from the runners occupying supporting, as opposed to leading roles: Penn’s second through fifth runners.

In 2013, none of Penn’s supporting performers were able to break into the league’s top-30 finishers. By contrast, three of Penn’s top five runners finished in the Ancient Eight’s top 30 in 2014, with all five finishing within the top 26. And this extra support made all the difference for the team’s overall performance.

Moving forward, the Quakers return Awad and, beyond that, much of the rest of the squad remains the same. Out of their top seven finishers in 2014, they lost only one — senior Conner Paez to graduation.

Granted, this loss will certainly hurt, especially given Paez’s incredible finish to his senior campaign, in which he came in second for the team at Heps and earned All-Region honors. However, while it may be naive to expect his talents to be fully replaced, the Quakers have several young runners, like sophomore Ross Wilson, waiting in the wings to help fill in the hole left by Paez’s departure.

But while the Quakers’ fleet of returning contributors should help to inspire confidence, it ultimately isn’t the biggest reason for optimism surrounding the team’s 2015 campaign. Rather, it is all of the room that the Quakers have left themselves to improve.

Juniors Brendan Shearn and Nicholas Tuck, for instance, have both shown glimmers of brilliance in their first two years in the Red and Blue. At last season’s Heps, they finished 26th and 33rd in the league, respectively. And yet, neither has shown any sign of reaching their ceilings as collegiate runners. Both will look to break in amongst the top runners in the Ivies as they become upperclassmen.

Similarly, senior Brendan Smith showed impressive consistency throughout his junior campaign and could reasonably finish off his career with a surge similar to that of his former teammate, Paez.

Ultimately, these will be the athletes who will determine the team’s results in 2015 — not Awad, who will likely be running away from the pack as always.

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