On October 2, Penn cross country will travel to Lehigh to compete in the Paul Short Invitational, where both the men and women will kick off their seasons in earnest.
The Quakers are coming off of first-place performances in two early-season tuneups: the Big 5 Invitational and the Main Line Invitational. Those meets featured fields of just five and three teams respectively, so the Red and Blue’s trip to Bethlehem will provide a far more competitive test.
The primary difficulty awaiting Penn is simply the meet's distance. The Paul Short will be the year’s first long-course competition, with the men running an 8,000 meter race and the women running a 6K. Despite strong Main Line performances from the women’s squad, which was operating at full-strength, this upgrade in mileage, along with the 44 other teams slated to compete, will certainly challenge the likes of senior Ashley Montgomery and her colleagues.
The women’s program, however, is enjoying one of the most promising periods of its existence, as it was recently ranked No. 22 nationally in the latest U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country’s Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) poll. Achieving this all-time high distinction and being placed above all other Ivy League competitors has imbued the team with great confidence heading into the meat of their season.
Montgomery commented on the benefits of their newfound status. “We did not expect [the ranking] at all. It tangibly and quantitatively put out there something that the coaches have been telling us all year, but it was like ‘Oh wait, this is legit.’ It was beyond the people who were supposed to be saying that.”
Head coach Steve Dolan, however, encourages his team to view the standings with a grain of salt. “It’s nice to be ranked. But with the early-season rankings, it’s tough to actually quantify the strength of the team till everyone gets to the heart of their seasons.”
The men’s side, which has achieved a ranking of No. 26 in its own right, is preparing to field a full-strength squad after a team of less experienced runners dominated the competition at the Main Line Invitational. Seven out of the top ten finishers sported the Red and Blue, as freshmen Aaron Groff and twin brothers Colin and William Daly submitted strong top-five times in the four mile race. While the graduation of phenom Thomas Awad will cast a perpetual shadow over the Quakers’ expectations, they can always rely on their outstanding depth to continue their success.
“We had some really awesome low-key, tune-up meets that showed we’re not only strong with our top guys but we’re really deep throughout,” senior captain Brendan Shearn said. “As the season goes on, people get injured and stuff like that happens, we know that there’s going to be a next man up, no matter what.”
Penn will certainly need all hands on deck to conquer the rolling hills of east-central Pennsylvania. Lehigh’s course, situated in the rural landscape of Bethlehem, presents a unique set of features that elicits excitement, concern and even nostalgia from the Quakers.
“Lehigh is a really interesting course. I’m from Pennsylvania so I’ve been running it since high school,” Shearn commented. “It’s really open, with a fast start and a rolling middle. But the best part is this long finishing stretch that’s 1,000 meters where you pretty much see the whole field. And a lot can happen at that point because you can go from in the top-20 to up in the top-five by the end of the race. It’s awesome so I’m really excited for that.”
Along with the Quakers’ first exposure to rolling hills and unpredictable terrain, the Paul Short Invitational will feature a wide breadth of competition early in the year.
“This is a field with over 300 runners, which will present some new challenges. It’s something they haven’t experienced yet, which is running in a crowd most of the way,” Dolan said. “And we’re going to see the Ivy League schools and some of the best teams in the region.”
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