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

Heading into its Ivy championship meet at Heptagonals this weekend, Penn cross country looks better than it has in a long time — maybe better than ever.

And the Quakers know it.

Just ask coach Steve Dolan about his expectations for the men’s team, which recently was awarded with its first top-30 national ranking in program history.

“For the first time in a number of years, we’re gonna go in ... trying to win it,” he said.

Or ask junior Cleo Whiting, whose women’s team has emerged as a force to be reckoned with throughout the year despite finishing dead last in cross country Heps only one year ago.

“We’re better than that,” she said. “And that’s all that matters.”

Of course, they have plenty of reasons to be confident.

The men’s squad, as per usual, features star senior Thomas Awad and most of the athletes that helped the team break through to a top-three finish last season at Heps. But over the past year, it has developed into a much more substantial whole.

Now, with the emergence of junior Nick Tuck as a legitimate force amongst the Ivy League’s elite and a solid next three runners to round out the team’s top-five, the team could very reasonably contend for an Ivy title this weekend.

There is also reason for optimism on the women’s side.

With the emergence of junior Ashley Montgomery along with typical lead runners Cleo and Clarissa Whiting, the Red and Blue may have the most formidable front-of-the-pack presence it has ever had. And it has shown in the team’s performance this season, particularly with its impressive top-10 finish at the highly-competitive Notre Dame Invitational.

But unlike its male counterpart, the women’s team does not have much previous success at Heps to build off of, and the Quakers will need to move forward from their disappointing 2014 result to live up to their current potential.

“We use it as motivation,” Whiting said. “We were definitely let down last year, but that’s in the past.”

But for all of the Quakers’ successes this season — and there have certainly been a lot of them — Heps is ultimately the meet that will be referenced by future teams. Meaning, this weekend will go a large way toward either making or breaking Penn’s season.

And there isn’t much margin for error, even for a men’s team that has recently broken onto the national stage.

“We need me and Nick [Tuck] ... to finish in the top five,” Awad said. “And then we need our [fourth and fifth finishers] to really run well.”

Adding to the intrigue surrounding the men’s team is the physical condition of Awad, who admits to having had an inconsistent fall in terms of training. Regardless, he will need to step up with his best race of the season this weekend to give the Red and Blue a shot at the title.

The women’s team has firsthand experience with just how difficult it can be to put together a successful run at Heps, and as such, the Quakers are quick to control expectations on their end.

“We’re a little timid to set our hopes to high,” Whiting said. “But I think deep down, we’re all dreaming a little bit.”

“For the men and the women, there’s really eight good teams [in the Ivy League],” Dolan added. “No [team] is ranked lower than ninth in their region. Anything in the top four at Heps is really what we’re wanting.”

But as Awad is quick to point out, all of the expectations surrounding the meet may be fun to talk about during the week, but when it’s time to step up to the run the race, the objective is simple.

“We’ve prepared,” he said. “We just need to go out there and win.

“Because right now is the time we’ve been waiting for.”

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