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Junior Maddie Villalba led the Quakers at the Paul Short Invitational with a time of 21:08.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Championship season is fast approaching for Penn cross country, but before the starting gun sounds at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships in a few short weeks, the Quakers will travel across the state for a final tuneup. 

However, Friday's Penn State National Open is no ordinary warm up. Slated to run against some of the top teams in the country, the Red and Blue will have their hands full.

The women’s team, led by junior Maddie Villalba, will be running for the first time since the Paul Short Invitational at the end of September. Villalba, who finished 18th out of 353 runners in that race, paced the Quakers to an 11th place finish out of 41 teams.  

Villalba will be relied upon heavily down the stretch, but, as she says, she needs her team just as much as they need her. 

“On a personal level, my success kind of owes to being disciplined over the summer,” Villalba said. “I was trying to get my miles in and trying to take care of myself on a day-to-day basis. But on a broader look, it’s definitely a result of being on this team. I’m surrounded by really hardworking people, and I’m pushing myself because I’m seeing how hard my teammates work. That’s been really key for me.”

Paul Short, widely known within the cross country community for its competitiveness, should resemble what the Quakers will see this weekend at Penn State.

“The competition this weekend should be pretty darn good,” Villalba said. “It should be at the same level as Paul Short, if not better. We’ll be looking to step up and to rise to that challenge.”   

The sentiment is the same on the men’s side, with star sophomore Anthony Russo and his team preparing to face tough competition. 

“There is going to be great competition [at the Penn State National Open]. There will be teams ranked not only in the region but also nationally,” Russo said. “It’s going to be great to see how we stack up against them. We’re getting towards the end of the season, towards championship season, so our goal is to really get better. We need to see how we’ve improved.”

While the competition should be reflective of the Quakers’ previous runs, Villalba explained that the course itself will be an new challenge.

“This course will be a bit different from what we’ve run at this year. It’s a little farther, and it’s also going to be hillier, which will be fun,” she said. 

Additionally, this race will be the final chance for the Quakers to compete as a team without the pressure of potential championship glory on the line. In addition to it being the Quakers' final tune-up, it will also be the men's first chance this season to see injured veterans Kevin Monogue and Will Daly return to the fray. 

“This race is a great opportunity because it allows us to see where we’re at,” Russo said. “Our times here can motivate us towards our ultimate goal, to win [the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships].” 

That being said, it’s not just the results that the Quakers are focusing on. The lead-up to events such as this weekend’s open can be just as rewarding as the race itself. 

“It’s going to be a really awesome opportunity to get us all together,” Villalba said. “We’ll all get on a bus and go somewhere to race together and to work together as a team, so I think that we’re all excited.”  

That sense of excitement should only increase as championship season heats up.