While team competition came to a close earlier this month, the Penn cross country season officially concluded this Saturday with the NCAA Championships, in which junior Maddie Villalba represented the women’s side, and sophomore Anthony Russo and senior Sam Webb qualified from the men’s team.
In what was, on the whole, a mixed bag of a season, the Penn cross country program was able to close its 2018 campaign on an undoubtedly high note.
Even before stepping foot on the snowy course in Madison, Wisc., the three Quaker delegates made program history: this was the first time that three Red and Blue-clad runners had qualified for the NCAA Championships.
The races began on Saturday morning with the women’s 6,000-meter. Despite the decidedly suboptimal conditions that faced the athletes, Villalba was not greatly impacted time-wise — her race was one defined by incredible consistency and it was the 10th-best individual race at the NCAA Championships in program history.
After the first 2K, Villalbra’s 6:52.4 mark put her in 131st place. She improved to 130th on the back of a 7:22.6 split on her second 2K. On the home stretch, she kicked hard to run a 7:05.6, which brought her to 132nd place and a 21:20.6 total time — only 5 seconds off of her time from the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Championships earlier this month, which did not take place in Wisconsin with late-November conditions. It was also the third fastest 6K time of the season for the women’s team. The two faster times? Both Villalba.
Anthony Russo and Sam Webb — the ninth and tenth men to individually qualify for this competition under coach Steve Dolan’s watch — fared similarly well.
In the first two kilometers of the 8K race, the two were running nearly in stride with one another — Webb clocked in at 5:58.8, while Russo ran a 5:59.3. From there, they continued to run fairly similar splits, but a gap started to arise between them.
Webb, in his final cross country race for the Red and Blue, made a mad dash forward in the pack:
After 2K, 172nd. After 4K, 159th. After 6K, 139th. After 8K, 110th.
When the dust had settled, Webb finished with a time of 30:42.66, which bested his 10K performance at the mid-Atlantic regionals by nearly 40 seconds.
In the meantime, Russo kept generally close behind his teammate — his splits relative to Webb’s combined with their position in the race is a testament to how tightly packed the field was. For example, between the 2K and 4K marks, Russo fell seven seconds behind Webb, but the gap between them increased from 10 spots to 33. Russo would end up finishing 187th with a time of 31:28.73, a strong outing for the sophomore rising star.
Despite a somewhat disappointing performance in the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships for the Quakers, the team bounced back strongly in NCAA competition. Earlier this month, the men and women placed fourth and fifth in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship, respectively. And now, this week, a record-breaking number of Quakers made the trek to Wisconsin and put on a strong showing.
It’s a great way to bookend the season for the Red and Blue.
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