In 1971, the Penn cross country team reached a level of success that the team has since only dreamed of.
They placed third in the NCAAs after winning the Ivy conference, with the best finish in program history. Since 1971, the men’s cross country team has only won the conference two other times: once in 1973 and again in 2016.
The 1971 team was home to some of the Quakers' all-time greats in cross country. Most notable was the undeniable presence of then-freshman Dave Merrick, who would graduate with the class of 1976, and then-senior and captain Karl Thornton.
Thornton saw such success with Penn cross country that he would go on to coach the team from 1979 to 1981. Under his reign, the team never prospered as it had when he was an athlete, perhaps due to the absence of talent from runners such as himself and Merrick.
In 1969, the Red and Blue attended their first cross country national championship, hosted in the Bronx, N.Y. at the Van Cortlandt Park. They placed eighth. The next year, the team would return to Williamsburg, Va., but only were able to accomplish a 22nd place finish on Kingsmill Course.
After attending the NCAAs for two years, the Quakers returned to Van Cortlandt park in 1971, led by Thornton.
Propelled by the momentum of an Ivy Championship under its belt, the team looked to achieve a new level of success than they had seen in the previous two years. To this day, Penn's 1971 Ivy League Championship finish is the best in program history, aided by Merrick’s first place finish in the 6k with a time of 24:31.8. He would go on to sweep the Ivy League two more times, in 1973 and 1975.
November of 1971 saw the greatest-ever showing for Penn cross country, as seven Quakers qualified and ultimately competed on the six-mile course in New York. Two years later, Merrick would go on to achieve the all-time program best individual finish, coming in ninth overall. In 1971, Merrick sprinted into a dominant position on the national level, finishing in 18th place overall as a mere freshman.
He was closely followed by two teammates in the top 50: then-junior Robert Childs and then-senior Julio Piazza. Similar to his teammate and captain Thornton, who finished 81st, Piazza would go on to coach track later in life. After graduating, he became the head coach of cross country at Lafayette College, a role he fulfilled for 27 years, leading the team to many national titles during his tenure.
Although the early years of attending the National Championships for cross country were unique because of Penn’s ability to send many athletes, the 1971 team boasts strong performances by a large number of runners. Though the Quakers would send seven athletes to the NCAAs four other times in the the years surrounding 1971, the team never had as many athletes in the top 100 again.
The overlap of such incredible athletes on a team is unique, and Merrick and Thornton’s impact on the program is still felt today.
Thornton is one of five athletes in program history to be named First-Team All-Ivy two years in a row. Similarly impressive, Merrick was one of three athletes in all-time program history to be named an All-American in cross country, and even more notably received the honor twice: once in 1971 and again in 1975.
The 1971 team saw an incredibly deep and talented squad with a clear passion for cross country. Combined, the talent of many individuals made for a season that saw a level of success the team has not seen since.