For the first time since 2016, the only year Red and Blue have previously qualified for the NCAA Championships in program history, Penn women’s cross country is nationally ranked.
The Quakers are ranked No. 23 in the most recent National Coaches Poll, an improvement from their initial season rank of No. 28. The Red and Blue are also ranked No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic regional rankings.
This ranking comes following an effort by Penn at the Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh where the team placed third out of thirty-eight teams with 173 points. The Red and Blue have also had strong performances at the Fordham Fiasco (fourth out of 11 teams), the Coast to Coast Battle in Beantown (ninth out of 22 teams), and the Main Line Invitational (third out of six teams).
With such a strong start to the season, this year's Quakers have shown that they are different from teams of recent years.
“I think we always tend to have a pretty close group of girls, but this year seemed especially close. I also think that at some point early in the fall [there] just was a really solid pack of girls running together at faster paces in workouts,” senior captain Maddie Villalba said.
This year more than ever, the Red and Blue have successfully paired unity with growth as the athletes push each other to achieve new personal and team goals. In a sport where team-to-team comparison can be difficult, this formula has been imperative to the Quakers’ early-season success.
“In cross country, there’s not really [anything] like a win-loss record during the season that gives you the sense as to who the best team is,” coach Steve Dolan said. “That leads us to [an approach] where we try to focus on our team trying to be the best that we can be.”
In addition to their established team identity, the Red and Blue have attributed their early-season success to several underclassmen who have shined at each race.
“Some of the younger girls, like the freshmen and sophomores, have really stepped up and have had a big impact," Villalba said.
Among these key underclassmen is sophomore Ariana Gardizy, who has emerged as a consistent top-three runner for Penn. The Quakers believe that pairing the strong performances of underclassmen such as Gardizy with the veteran leadership provided by seniors like Villalba will help them as they look to continue their success moving forward.
The increased excitement surrounding the group as a result of its new national ranking has made the goal of a team berth at the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis increasingly possible. While the Red and Blue are excited about their early success, however, they are making sure not to get ahead of themselves.
“I think we’re all really excited about it. We don’t want to let it get to our heads or anything so we’re not too focused on just rankings," Villalba said. "We know we need to put the work in behind [the ranking] to maintain it. And I think it really puts a fire underneath us to prove that that’s real and that’s who we are and that we can actually do better than that."
Despite their increased success from last year to this year, the Quakers' goals have not changed.
“[Our goal is to] keep building together and use each other during races so we can finish higher than we are used to at [the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships], do really well there, then place high at regionals, so we can qualify for nationals," junior Melissa Tanaka said. “We really want to qualify for nationals; that’s the end goal for sure."
It remains to be seen whether this team can replicate the success of the 2016 Penn squad. Yet, there is clearly something unique about this Red and Blue team, which plans on giving everything it has to get to Indianapolis this year.