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

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as far as Ivy League cross country teams are concerned.

This Saturday, two dozen of Penn’s fastest men and women will be making the short trip up to Princeton’s West Windsor Fields for the annual Ivy League Heptagonal Championships.

“It’s phenomenal. It’s the most exciting meet of the year,” senior captain Brendan Shearn said. He finished first for the Quakers and 46th overall this past week at the Wisconsin Invitational. Shearn has been on Penn’s Heps team every year he’s been a student here, and the meet is always a highlight of his season.

“I’ve been racing some of these same guys since my freshmen year ... since high school, even,” he remarked. “It definitely gives a competitive edge when you look over and see someone you’ve been racing against for four years. You just want to beat every single jersey you see.”

“This year we’re definitely coming in with a new confidence we didn’t have before, with higher expectations for ourselves,” junior Abby Hong said. This will be her third Heps, and she’s going in with a race strategy built around that same competitive spirit that Shearn exudes.

“I start off a little more on the conservative side and then move up throughout the race. It’s a confidence booster when you’re passing people the whole race.”

Though the men’s team has never won an Ivy League championship and the women’s team hasn’t won since 1990, there’s no reason that this won’t be their year. In fact, with second and third place respective regional rankings in the latest USTFCCCA poll, Penn is positioned to be successful not just at Heps this Saturday but in the NCAA postseason meets in the weeks to come as well.

However, no one understands the importance of concentrating on the task at hand better than coach Steve Dolan.

“We just want to run the best races we can at the Heps for the Ivy League title,” he insisted, “and then we’ll let the dust settle and we’ll focus on the next step.”

Dolan, who was optimistic about both the men’s and women’s teams’ chances at Heps, emphasized that the Quakers have done all they can to prepare for the race.

“We definitely put in a good two-week training block when you add it up,” he said. “A week out we ran pretty hard workouts, and we’re doing lighter work today and tomorrow trying to make sure that we’re fresh for Saturday.”

Dolan also mentioned, however, that the Ivy Championships are usually anything but predictable. Rather than focusing on variables over which the team has no control like all the emotions of the day, Dolan says that the Quakers are “just really trying to focus a lot on us being ready to run our best race this Saturday.”

And what better place to show off a season’s worth of training than at a race so steeped in tradition, a meet that Dolan calls “a celebration of the Ivy League and our runners.”

Like Shearn, Penn’s coach was quick to mention that Heps is by far his favorite.

“It’s the best race of the season in my mind, just because of the history of the Ivy League,” Dolan said. “The athletes and coaches all know each other, and we’ll have a lot of alums that come back to watch. It’s pretty awesome. It’s an atmosphere like no other meet.”

The Princeton course is marked by small rolling hills and all grass footing. If nothing else, it will be a fair course to determine this year’s Ivy League champions.