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Last year, junior sprinter Rochelle Dong finished second in the 50-yard freestyle. After dominating the event in dual meets all year long, the San Diego native is looking to finish one spot higher in 2016.

Credit: Julio Sosa , Julio Sosa

Six months of practice. 22 weeks of doubles. Thousands of miles swam. And it all comes down to three days in February.

Without exaggeration, for the Quakers, this entire season has been about one thing — going fast at Ivy League Championships. And now that it’s finally February, coach Mike Schnur has a lot to say.

“We’re a heck of a lot faster than we were in November,” he said. “They’ve worked hard all year and kept their focus on Ivies. I’m looking forward to seeing it pay off this weekend.”

The Red and Blue, however, have no delusions of grandeur. Although Penn has made great efforts to improve throughout the season, the team would be hard pressed to ask for anything more than a repeat of its fourth-place finish from last year given the strength of Yale and perennial powerhouses Princeton and Harvard.

But don’t count the Quakers out just yet, as they could play a significant role in what appears to be the dominant storyline of this year’s clash of HYP teams.

For the first time since 1999, a team other than Harvard or Princeton will go into the championship as a serious contender for first place. After beating both the Crimson and Tigers in the dual meet season, Yale looks to be on the verge of breaking Harvard and Princeton’s stronghold on the Ancient Eight and taking home the trophy after a 19-year hiatus from an Ivy League Championship.

“Yale goes in the meet certainly as a favorite but not far ahead of Harvard and Princeton,” Schnur said.

But the resurgence of the Bulldogs as an Ancient Eight swimming power comes with a catch. Before they can dismantle the past 17 years of Harvard-Princeton dominance, they first have to go the distance, quite literally, with the Red and Blue.

“I’m most excited to go up against Yale,” sophomore Virginia Burns said. “They have one of the most prominent distance programs in the league and probably the only distance program that can compete with ours.”

The performance of Penn’s distance contingent, led by Burns who was the Quakers’ sole Ivy champion last year, will have a sizeable say in who walks away with the crown this weekend. In the 500-yard freestyle alone, preliminary heats will feature eight of Penn’s 17-woman squad.

“We’re bringing a rather large distance squad this weekend,” Burns added. “And we’re hoping to see how the scoring lines ups between the two distance rivals.”

For Schnur, however, it’s not so much about the belligerent sides as the individual soldiers.

“In a meet like this you are not really competing with teams, you are competing with individuals,” Schnur said. “Your 17 women swim their events versus everyone else’s 17 women, and you see who steps up in the mornings.”

Freshmen make up seven of the Red and Blue’s championship roster this year, a sign of good things to come. But in the immediate future, many of Schnur’s hopes lie with a certain Brockton, Mass., native.

“I think we need Virginia to do what she did last year,” said Schnur of the sophomore’s first place finish in the 500 free. “And I think we have a lot of potential finalists, [but] you never go in looking for [a title].

“I’d like to think that it’ll happen again,” said Burns of a successful title defense in the 500 free. “But I was surprised last year so you never know if there’s going to be another surprise this year.”

In addition to Burns, the Quakers boast some serious title contenders in Nancy Hu in the 200 butterfly and Rochelle Dong in the 50 free or perhaps the 100 fly as well.

But if Penn wants to save its fourth place claim or even contend for third, it will need to do what Schnur has stressed all season — getting wins when they can and getting by it when they can’t.

“We did our job,” he said of the season. “We won the dual meets we should’ve. We lost the dual meets we should’ve.”

When the Red and Blue head up to Princeton for the Ancient Eight meetup on Thursday, they’ll go to get the job done and not get too caught up with potential history being made.

“If we take care of the Harvard distance kids, the Brown distance kids and the Princeton distance kids, then we’ll get plenty of points,” Schnur said. “We don’t have to beat Yale in those races, but we have to get a lot of thirds, fifths, sevenths and ninths.”

Those thirds, fifths, sevenths and ninths may one day become firsts and seconds, but for now, the Quakers will just have to keep swimming.

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