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

With a historically strong season in the books and the departure of some of its strongest runners, Penn cross country has some big shoes to fill.

2015 saw the ascendance of Penn’s distance stars to new heights, as 2016 graduate Tom Awad and current senior Ashley Montgomery established themselves as two of the most dominant runners in the Ivy League.

Men’s cross country was particularly impressive, flying under the radar as one of Penn Athletics’ most successful teams last fall. The team’s performance, overshadowed by football’s unexpected championship season, was historically significant, as the Quakers qualified for the NCAA championships 40 years after their last appearance. And not only did the Red and Blue qualify, but they also placed an impressive 24th.

The men’s team was led by the recently graduated Awad, who is firmly entrenched in Penn’s history books as one of the greatest to ever lace them up for the Red and Blue. Awad capped his storied career with a first place finish in the Ivy Heptagonal Championships, clocking a time of 24:26.4 at the 2015 meet, and now owns three of the top five times in Penn’s Heptagonal history. The result boosted the Quakers to a second-place team finish, their best in 42 years.

Senior Nick Tuck reflected on Awad’s dominant presence:

“There’s no replacing Tommy, he’s a one of a kind runner. I think we’ll be affected on a national level, because he was always a low stick for us. But we’ll always keep what Tommy told us in mind while we’re racing and his influence will never leave the team.”

Awad was not the only component of last year’s success, however, as Tuck and the rest of the then-supporting cast performed admirably. Tuck opened the year strong with a second-place finish at the Mainline Invitational and placed six at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional, which helped lock up the Quakers’ automatic qualification for the NCAA championships. Now-senior Brendan Shearn also recorded four top-12 finishes throughout the year, including a season-high finish of eighth at the Princeton Invitational.

The women’s team, however, was not to be outdone by their male counterparts.

Led by Ashley Montgomery, the Quakers drastically improved from a last-place finish at the 2014 Heps by beating out Cornell, Harvard and Dartmouth with 114 points in the 6K race. Montgomery came in fifth, earning first team All-Ivy status, and twin seniors, Cleo and Clarissa Whiting, finished 13th and 23rd respectively. Cleo, with her run, capped a season chock full of top-10 finishes with a second team All-Ivy distinction.

Montgomery reflected on the thrill of running well at the Heptagonal championships and putting the rest of the conference on notice:

“Heps was my favorite race by far because that meet had a special feeling with all the school and team spirit going into it. That was our one opportunity to compete against the other Ivies and show what we’re capable of.”

Montgomery’s exceptional season-long performance was certainly not expected after slow but steady improvement over her first two seasons. She credited her meteoric rise to the extensive experience and preparation that every Penn runner goes through:

“There’s a lot to be said about getting used to the training over the years. You’re used to balancing school and running. You’re getting closer to the team. And, a big aspect of it was learning to listen to my own body and to learn that all runners are different and all people are different.”

Ask any member of the Penn cross country team and they will tell you that their focus lies on the months ahead. But, after the results of last season, the Quakers can be forgiven if they take some time to reminisce.

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