In the wake of an exhaustive election season during which major party candidates displayed questionable leadership qualities, it will perhaps bring some amount of solace to know that the future of Penn men’s and women’s cross country rests in caring and capable hands.
Together some of the most accomplished runners in recent Penn history, team captains Ashley Montgomery, Isabel Griffith, Brendan Shearn and Chris Hatler take their leadership roles very seriously and very literally as they consistently head the Quaker pack race after race.
“Each captain is unique in their own right, but this group is really strong in leading by example- with character and work ethic and by chasing the collective goals of the team. I think that kind of leadership really resonated amongst our group and was a big part of our success,” Penn coach Steve Dolan said.
This collective success has evolved over the course of the season to become the greatest the Quakers have seen in years. An impressive overall performance at the Heptagonal Cross Country Championships, an exclusively Ivy-attended event, produced historic results across the board.
Ashley Montgomery led the women’s team to a 3rd place finish — the highest team finish for the Quakers since 2005- while seniors Nick Tuck and Brendan Shearn captured fourth- and fifth-place finishes, leading the men’s team to their first Heps title since 1973.
“Winning Heps for the first time in 43 years was huge, and we were really excited to get that, but after we took a step back, we realized there was more to be done. Our season didn’t end there,” Shearn said. “We made it to NCAA’s last year for the first time in a long time. We knew we wanted to be back and to do better than we had last year, so it was important to keep everyone reminded that we still have to work hard and that we’re not just going to walk into this title ... no one’s going to give it to us. We have to go out and take it.”
And take it they did; at the Mid-Atlantic Regional meet on Friday, the Penn women improved on last season’s sixth-place finish by climbing to an impressive third-place finish, while the men’s Red and Blue closely followed with a fourth-place finish in a herd of 22 teams. As a testament to the leadership style they embody together, almost every captain was accounted for as a scoring runner.
“All we’ve really talked about is team goals: try to finish as high as we can in the region to be one of the top teams to try to qualify for the Nationals. I think it’s each person out there trying to run the best individual they can, knowing that they’re part of the group. I think they motivate each other and help each other succeed,” Dolan said of his team captains.
Admiration for this highly successful leadership collective doesn’t just come from above. The captains help cultivate a culture of respect and accountability that places them in the position of role model for anyone on the team to emulate.
“I look at this role as a responsibility to help the team culture and to be the glue that helps bring people closer together as a team. You can go about being captain in a lot of different ways, but I want to be able to leave this team having people feel like a family,” Montgomery said.
This culture of togetherness creates the kind of environment in which a highly competitive team at a highly competitive university thrives. Pursuit of a common goal is stressed first and foremost, and the united victory carries more value than individual achievement.
“At the end of the day, we have a lot of leaders on the team, and everyone takes personal responsibility,” Shearn said. “It’s been fun for me to step into the role that I’ve seen a lot of the upperclassmen have while I was younger and help the freshmen and the younger kids get accustomed to Penn and know what they have to do to be a successful runner here.”
With their finish, the women’s squad qualified for an at-large bid as a team to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 19 for the first time ever. They’ll be joined by Tuck, who qualified individually despite the men’s team as a whole falling just on the wrong side of the at-large bubble.
In this tail end of the season, they will turn to their captains not only as paradigms of performance, but as trailblazers for a culture designed to unify and elevate the program. During a tumultuous presidential transition, their story and hopes of future successes are a heartening reminder that strong leadership and integrity are very much alive and active here at Penn.