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Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

Collegiate athletics always brings challenges to teams who have to deal with radically different rosters every year.

But this year, Penn women’s cross country caught a break.

All of the Quakers’ top five runners — also known as the five runners who score for the team — are returning to the team for the 2016 season.

At the peak of their college careers, coach Steve Dolan is expecting seniors Ashley Montgomery, Cleo and Clarissa Whiting, and juniors Abby Hong and Isabel Griffith to lead their team to new heights this year.

“We’re really excited about the women,” Dolan said. “One of the things that was significant is that we had more women run the 5,000 meters on the track last year to get some experience in longer-distance races.”

Experience is one thing the women have at a premium this season — three seniors and two juniors form the core of Penn’s squad. The runners have been training and competing at the 5k distance for years — and not just competing, but racing well, too.

“We actually had four women hit the NCAAs preliminary qualifying standard in the 5,000,” Dolan said. “This is the first year in a few years that we’ve had a significant group of upperclassmen who are accomplished runners coming into the season. It’s really exciting, and it’ll be fun to see what they can do this season.”

For the three senior stars of the team, there is an element of ‘now or never’ for 2016. Montgomery went to the NCAA championships last season as an individual, and Cleo Whiting went as a freshman in 2013, but the team has not qualified for nationals in the four years that the now-seniors have run for the team. This year could be their best shot.

“It’s a very different season for all of us,” Cleo said. “If anything, we already have such an established top group that the younger classmen can ask us a lot more questions and get a lot more advice, because we’ve been there so much. Three of us, the only three seniors on the women’s team, the program just wasn’t that developed when we were freshmen. We went into every race with unclear expectations, so now I think we can guide them a lot more. It makes us feel good to be helpful to them.”

Cleo made it very clear that for her, being helpful doesn’t stop there. She’s spending her whole season trying to build up her team, to achieve her ultimate goal of sending the Quakers to TrackTown U.S.A. in Oregon to compete in the NCAA national championships as a team.

“My freshman year, I was really lucky, and I qualified for nationals individually,” Cleo said. “And — I told the girls this at the beginning of the summer — when I lined up at nationals, I felt really lonely. My goal since then, for the last three years, has been to get the team there. I will not feel satisfied unless we go as a team.

“But I really think this is the year we’re gonna do it,” she continued. “We have a lot of really great girls, we’ve already been ranked high, which I think is a good little bit of pressure for everybody, but it really just affirms what I was trying to tell everybody at the beginning of the season, which is that we just have to decide that we want to do it and that we’re good enough.”

And a lot of pundits are saying that they could good enough, indeed. The team was ranked last week as the No. 3 team in the Mid-Atlantic Region by the USTFCCCA for their preseason poll. Time will tell whether they can live up to the billing, and even progress further, but the first step awaits on Friday when they open their season at the Big 5 Invitational at Belmont Plateau.

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