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Senior Ashley Montgomery (left) will lead Penn cross country as the Quakers participate in the Wisconsin Invitational with some of the nation's top squads.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

Did nationals come early this year?

This Friday marks one of the most important meets in the Penn cross country season as both the men’s and women’s teams travel to Madison for the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.

The event, in just eight years, has established itself among the most prestigious meets in the country with representatives from many of the nation’s premier programs.

Included amongst those top programs are the Penn men and women, who finished fourth and third respectively in the 2016 Paul Short Run on Oct. 1. These impressive finishes came at the expense of some of the nation’s best runners, many of whom they’ll face again this weekend, affording the Quakers great confidence.

“Having one race behind us helps a lot in terms of confidence,” senior Ashley Montgomery said. “But also in terms of knowing that when you step on the line, it’s not a question of whether you can run a full 6K today, but rather how well you can run today.”

The men’s bracket will be home to 20 of the top 30 teams in the country according to USTFCCCA polls, including the 25th-ranked Quakers, the only nationally ranked team in the Ivy League.

Led by senior Nick Tuck, Penn will look to rise even further up those rankings with wins over No. 8 Iona and No. 6 Georgetown, two of the teams that finished ahead of the Red and Blue last meet.

Adding to the field of worthy opponents are top-ranked Northern Arizona, as well as Ivy rivals Columbia and Princeton.

“This meet is just a lot deeper than the meet at Paul Short,” Tuck said. “This time around, every team is a good team, and everyone belongs in this meet.”

The women’s bracket is equally stacked, featuring seven of the nation’s top 10 teams including top-ranked Providence.

Even within such a vaunted field, the Penn women, ranked 26th, are a very dangerous team led by Montgomery, whose time of 20:12 was good for second overall at the Paul Short Run.

Penn will need every bit of her speed to defeat a 17th-ranked Yale squad. The Bulldogs finished first at the same event despite their best runner clocking in three seconds behind Montgomery.

However, the Penn star senior is not at all intimidated by the field. Instead, she firmly believes that her team is focused and prepared for what lies ahead in Wisconsin, attributing this readiness predominantly to the work of the coaching staff.

“Our workouts have been tailored to race simulations. We’ve focused a lot on mental strategies, and I think that that’s made a huge difference in our confidence,” Montgomery said.

Coach Steve Dolan is excited for this hard work to come to fruition for his athletes, and he recognizes the importance that a race of this caliber holds in preparing his squad for the ultimate goal.

“It’s very much a simulation of what nationals will be like if we qualify,” Dolan said. “It’s like running the nationals in the middle of the season in terms of the quality of the field.”

Ready for this challenge are both the men’s and women’s runners who feel that their inclusion in the field is instrumental in providing it with such quality, hence their high national rankings.

“We’re excited to prove, not only to us, but to the rest of the country, that we belong and that we deserve this attention,” Tuck said.

“It’s definitely a meet that we’ve had marked on our calendars.”

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