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Junior Aaron Groff led the men's cross country team with a 32nd place finish at the PSU National Open two weeks ago.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Under the guidance of coach Steven Dolan, Penn cross country seems to be taking a gauged but determined approach to this weekend’s Ivy League Heptagonal Championships. 

While the Quakers' men’s and women’s cross country teams have shown glimpses of promise on the backs of solid performances by veterans and newcomers alike, Dolan believes they’ve grown enough to shine when it matters. This Saturday at Princeton — the host of the Ivy Heps — Dolan’s runners will get their chance.

“The goal for cross country is always to be at your best at the very end of the season,” Dolan said. “We can’t really control other teams; we can just control ourselves. The goal is to have as many people as possible run their best race of the season on that day.”

On the men’s side, the Red and Blue are led by senior Sam Webb, senior captain Kevin Monogue, juniors Aaron Groff, Will and Colin Daly, and sophomore Anthony Russo.

The men’s squad has had a season full of ups and downs; in five meets, the team’s finishes have ranged from first out of 10 at the Bison Open to 31st out of 33 at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational. While the Wisconsin Invitational featured 18 nationally-ranked squads in the field, Groff highlighted how the event’s results relayed warning signs to the team.

“The Wisconsin weekend was a wake-up call for us. To the credit of the leadership of our group, we all kind of got together and said that this is not going to be good enough,” Groff said. “As a team, our mentality has been to get better every two weeks.”

And get better, the group did.

Over the course of the two weeks after Wisconsin, the Quakers improved to a 28th out of 41 showing at the Paul Short Invitational, and then finished seventh out of 21 teams at the Penn State National Open.

“Penn State was a huge jump for all of us. [Even though] we adapted the mentality of underdogs, we have just as good of a shot as any other team in the league this weekend,” Groff added.

On the women’s side, junior Maddie Villalba has been the team’s most consistent pacesetter. Junior Juliet Kohli, sophomores Danielle Orie and Melissa Tanaka, and freshman Isabel Hebner have been solid as well.

The momentum of the women, however, seems to be slowing down after a strong start to the season. After finishing first out of 10 and second out of six in their first two meets, the Quakers have finished 11th out of 41 and 17th out of 28 in their last two meets.

Coach Dolan shared some candid, but optimistic, thoughts on this trend.

“On the women’s side, I’d say it’d be a challenge to try and win the championships this season. For us, our biggest goal would be to run our best and really compete in the competition. Cross country is a stepping stone for track and field so we’d love to finish the season strong.”

Despite the concerns, the Red and Blue are still optimistic and excited to make some breakthroughs across the board.

”I think we are excited and ready to go,” Villalba said. “The Heps are just such a special race as we have parents coming, we have alumni coming [to watch us]. It is just going to be a great way for all of us to come together and cap off [our semester].”

Strong individual showings seem to have mustered enough belief in the Quakers, as a unit, to recognize their potential to be able to make this weekend a winning one. The men's team will be aiming for its second title since 2016, while the women’s team looks to end a 28-year title drought.