The advantages of youth are advantages for Penn cross country.
This season, Penn cross country has called upon a core of exceptionally strong underclassmen. A large number of the Quakers' scorers at each meet have come from fresher faces — the women have enjoyed contributions from freshmen Isabel Hebner, Annie Zimmer, and Ariana Gardizy, and sophomores Danielle Orie and Niamh Hayes. On the men’s side, sophomore Anthony Russo has been a leader on the course, while classmates Ryan Renken and Daniel Cohen have each pitched in.
It's unusual in college athletics for less experienced underclassmen to be so dominant, but for the Quakers, it can largely be explained by the program's upward-trending recruiting.
“We always talk about how each year, we keep seeing that the talent we bring in is just better and better each year,” junior Colin Daly said. “To us, it’s not a surprise because we think we’re moving in the right direction.”
“As a program, we want to compete at a higher level, but I’d say right now, one of the things with the freshmen is they’re definitely the most talented recruiting class we have, and it’s just a matter of being able to work hard to achieve what they want to achieve.”
It's been said, though, that hard work beats talent only when talent doesn’t work hard. So the responsibility then falls on the upperclassmen to show the younger talent how to work hard.
“It’s exciting because they’re all such phenomenal runners and phenomenal people,” junior Maddie Villalba said. “I get to work hard, and they get to see that and appreciate it, and they work hard too. It’s this reflexive thing: working hard and feeling good and performing well, that I think is really exciting.”
A combination of hard work and talent could prove to catapult Penn cross country even further up the rankings, to try to reach the national stage. In the past three meets, underclassmen have finished well. At the Bison Open in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Russo finished second, six seconds behind the winner, with a time of 18:53.1. At the Main Line Invitational in Haverford, Pa., he was again the runner-up with a time of 19:34.2 for the 4-mile race.
"I’m right where I want to be with my fitness," Russo said in Haverford. With another month of training under his belt, his status near the top of the team should be better cemented with championship season lying ahead.
Renken and Cohen also ran well in the first half of the season. At the Bison Open, the pair finished third and fifth with times of 18:55.6 and 19:01.9. The following meet, the pair took 15th and 12th, respectively.
As for the women, Hayes, Zimmer, and Hebner finished sixth, seventh, and eighth at the Bison Open. Then at Haverford, Hebner ran the fastest out of her Quaker teammates, finishing eighth with a 17:18.3 time for a 3-mile race.
Last year, then-rookie Orie led the women with an eighth-place finish at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championship. She ran a 6k in 21:20.0. She credits much of the team’s success to the influence of upperclassmen runners.
“They told us a lot that what we really have is this great work mentality, and it’s really exciting to be a part of this whole building process, because I know that it’s not coming from only just talent and training hard,” Orie said. “It’s also coming from having really great mentors on the team and I think the upperclassmen really set the stage for that.”
“When you’re competing you’re not really doing it only for yourself, you’re doing it for the girls with you.”
The women and men have both needed younger runners to step up this year in the wake of an unfortunate stretch of injuries plaguing some of the more senior members of the program. With senior captain Karli Visconto sidelined for the former and senior Kevin Monogue and junior Will Daly set to make their season debut this weekend for the latter, a greater burden than usual was put on Penn's underclassmen this fall.
Despite the steep learning curve, though, they look poised to make a splash come championship season in the next few weeks.