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Penn Relays Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

Penn cross country has just one meet left — the Princeton Invitational — before championship season begins, leaving little time for improvement as the men’s and women’s squads search for strength in numbers heading into nationals.

The men and women both put on similar performances at their most recent meet, the prestigious Notre Dame Invitational. The men placed 11th out of a highly competitive 20 teams, while the women finished 10th out of 21 high-caliber squads.

And while both sets of runners had strong showings at the front of the pack, depth was an issue for the Red and Blue. Purely from a times perspective, the teams' top five runners failed to close out quickly enough. Given that points are scored by order of finish, this prevents the Quakers from going from the group of strong teams to the group of nationwide elites.

The men, boosted by the return of senior Thomas Awad, are looking to build on their consistently good performances and reach the next, elite level as they approach the Heptagonal Championships on Oct. 30.

“It’s fun to be back and racing again,” Awad said. His contribution at the front of the Quakers’ pack is crucial for the team’s success, but he deflected the focus on his individual contributions.

“We need a strong showing from the three through seven guys,” Awad continued. “Our one-two punch is there, and the potential for our three through seven guys to be in the top 20 at regionals is there. We’re almost there, and I think a couple more weeks of training will put us there.”

Coach Steve Dolan has been working to ensure that this next step is taken in the practices leading up to the Princeton Invitational on Saturday, as well as the Leopard Invitational, where the younger runners in the squad will compete on the same day.

“We’re stronger now than we were two weeks ago,” Dolan said. “This race is a big one to develop our depth. We’re looking for a good team performance.”

In a similar sense, the women have been seeking a stronger and deeper team performance in 2015. Approaching Heps as well as the NCAA regional championship in November, assistant coach Claire Hewitt was optimistic of her squad’s chances.

“We had a good showing at Notre Dame, so we’re all excited to have good momentum,” Hewitt said. “This is the point in the season where you start to have breakthrough races. The girls who are running in the five, six and seven spots will be able to see improvements from their training.

“At Heps we want to finish in the top five, maybe top three,” Hewitt added.

Awad also weighed in for the men, saying, “We want to win Heps and make it to the NCAA finals.”

First, though, the Quakers must come out strong at the Princeton Invitational, the same site where the NCAA regional championships will be held just less than a month later. Saturday's meet will also host regional rivals Villanova.

“We want to compete well with ‘Nova and give them a run for their money,” Awad concluded.

“They’re a good team, but we’re also a good team. We’re almost there.”

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