When you think of New Jersey, the first things that come to mind might be the boardwalk, beaches, casinos, or the Newark Airport. What you probably don't think about is cross country runners, but maybe you should.
Both the men and women of Penn cross country are very familiar with the Garden State; double-digit numbers on each team represent Philadelphia's eastern neighbor, totaling nearly half of each group.
Coach Steve Dolan brings runners in from all over the state — north, south, and even the oft-forgotten central.
“I think there’s a couple things that play into that, the first of which is that New Jersey is a very good state for track and field and cross country, so there’s a good depth of quality performers from New Jersey,” Dolan said. “The second thing is that students who have been to the Penn Relays in high school see Franklin Field and Penn as this amazing place to run, and these kids have grown up dreaming of competing here.”
Every year at the Penn Relays, hundreds of high school athletes from the local area, including New Jersey, come to participate in one of the year’s most prestigious events. This gives them a perfect opportunity to see the campus as prospective students and athletes.
Dolan also has a personal connection with New Jersey; he started off his career at The College of New Jersey, coaching there for 12 years before moving to nearby Princeton for eight more years.
In both locations, he used his position to foster deep connections with high school coaches all across the state, many of which still remain today.
“When you’ve got some people from an area that have come and done well and liked it, it starts a feeder program,” Dolan explained. “We have these New Jersey students on the team that are having a good experience, running well, and they know people in New Jersey, and it starts becoming a connection.”
New Jerseyan runners at Penn span from the most veteran to some of the newest members of the team.
Among the most experienced is senior Robert Klopf, who attended River Dell High School along with fellow Quakers juniors Collin and Will Daly. Having known each other for many years now, the three of them are very familiar with competing on the same team.
“We’ve definitely gotten closer. We were close in high school too, but it’s continued more so in college, especially off the track,” Klopf said of the trio.
Freshman Isabel Hebner might be just getting into the world of college cross country, but she’s already been familiar with many of her current teammates for a while. Many of them would cross paths with her on the track at the high school level, like fellow freshman Caroline O’Sullivan.
“With Caroline, her team was our biggest competition in the spring, so she used to be my ‘enemy’, but now we’re teammates, and I like it this way much better,” she said.
On a team with so many other people from a similar area, it’s easy to bond over common interests and memories, especially from a close-knit community.
“We have debates about ‘Is there a Central Jersey?’ and reminisce about old cross country courses, so stuff like that is fun,” Hebner said.
Although it can help that many of the runners come from the same state, it doesn’t limit the team from forming a cohesive group.
The other half of the team not from New Jersey is still just as integrated into the group, no matter what state they call home.
“Early on it’s nice for people [who know others] from high school, but I’m not more or less close to anyone because of where they’re from,” Klopf said.
“It’s definitely mixed; [the rest of the team is] all kind of sick of hearing about New Jersey,” Hebner jokingly added.
It’s somewhat unique to have such a concentration of a team be from one state, but it only serves to makes the group stronger. While many of the runners got their starts in the Garden State, Penn is their home now and they have all embraced it together.