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Senior Elyssa Gensib is ready to provide veteran leadership for a group of underclassmen in dire need of it.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

Last year, Penn women’s cross country finished last in the Ivy League.

This is an indisputable fact. In their year-end Heptagonal meet, the de facto Ivy championship competition, the Red and Blue failed to finish higher than eighth in the Ancient Eight. And while any single meet result should be taken with a grain of salt, this sort of result is the elephant proverbial in the room.

But to hear coach Steve Dolan talk about it, one gets the impression that, with this season’s squad, there’s no elephant in sight.

“There were a lot of good things that happened to us last season,” he said. “Track and field was actually very good for our middle-distance and distance runners, so we’re looking at that [instead of cross country] as the last season.”

Last year’s track and field results largely back up Dolan’s position. The Quakers’ women’s middle-distance squad, and their 4x800-meter team in particular, impressed on a consistent basis throughout the spring, helping Penn achieve a fifth-place finish in track Heptagonals — that’s a far cry from last.

However, even if his squad did not show marked improvement during the track season, Dolan would still have plenty of means to justify his athletes’ last-place cross country finish.

Throughout his tenure at Penn, Dolan has had a chronic dearth of production from his upperclassmen on the women’s side, including his seniors in particular. In last year’s cross country Heptagonals, for example, Penn did not feature a single senior amongst the team’s top seven finishers, of whom only two were juniors.

In a collegiate sport that can be as reliant on leadership from upperclassmen as any other, a lack of experienced talent can be a disaster, and it has severely limited the progress of Dolan’s women’s squad in the past. However, the tides appear to be turning.

Finally, most of Dolan’s first true Penn recruits, including the Whiting twins and Ashley Montgomery, are finally making the transition into their junior year. And runners like Elyssa Gensib and Amy Darlington, who have shown consistent improvement throughout the past three years, are now ready to provide senior leadership for a group of runners in dire need of it.

“As the new runners come in, [the upperclassmen] are almost like coaches in terms of helping them find their way,” Dolan noted.

Add in the usual cast of underclassmen talent — led by sophomores Abby Hong and Kylene Cochrane — that the program is already used to, and it would appear that the Red and Blue finally have the right ingredients for a run at success in the Ivy League.

With a fully-healthy squad in tow — including Cleo Whiting, who was plagued by injury throughout the latter stages of 2014 — the Quakers hinted at this kind of ability over the weekend at the season-opening Big 5 Invitational, in which they blitzed the competition, taking four of the top five positions.

However, this is still largely the same squad as last year’s that finished last in the Ivies, and this is still the same program that has failed to break into the top five of the Ancient Eight since 2007. As such, Dolan is quick to temper expectations of what it may be able to achieve.

“The reality is ... we’re a little bit stronger [in] middle-distance,” he said. “There’s some work for us to develop to be as strong as we need to be in cross country for 6,000 meters.”

So is it reasonable to expect the women’s squad to break out into the top level of the Ivy League, much like the men’s team did last year? Probably not.

But that’s a bit beside the point. For the first time in the Dolan era of Penn women’s cross country, the team is all grown up. Now it’s time to see if the results follow.

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