Over the course of four days last week, Penn track and field competed at the Division I NCAA East Region Preliminaries, with many Quakers having strong showings.
The meet took place at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where the Quakers sent ten athletes who had all qualified after personal-best performances during the regular season. Unlike the team's regular-season competitions, this meet involved a much broader pool of top-tier athletes.
“The competence level is extremely high when you’re talking about the entire eastern half of the country,” Penn Director of Track & Field/Cross Country Steve Dolan said. “It’s just an amazing meet to be a part of, and it was exciting to watch our athletes mix it up. It’s super hard to get [into] the NCAA Finals. [It’s a] very elite group when you’re down to the top 12 in the entire east half of the country.”
Additionally, the event differed from previous meets Penn had competed in over the last year in that fans and spectators were allowed to attend.
With the combination of a tougher pool of athletes and an increased viewing population, the Quakers were in for a very different experience than they had had throughout the regular season.
On the men’s side, Anthony Russo had a very strong showing in what would be the final race of his senior season. Running in the 10,000 meters, Russo needed a superb time to finish in the top 12. He ended up coming just 6.7 seconds short of reaching the 12 spot, finishing in 16th place with a time of 29:16.17.
Another impressive performance came from junior Noah Carey, who did much better in the 5000m than his ranking might have suggested.
“They only take the best 48 people in each event, and he was the 47th qualifier,” Dolan said. “So one of the last people to make it into the meet, and then at the meet, he finished 23rd overall, which is really kind of noteworthy on how much he moved up relative to his ranking coming in, so that was an outstanding performance.”
In the same race, team captain Ryan Renken competed for the last time of his career and came in 33rd place. According to Dolan, Renken was pivotal to the team’s success all year, as he acted as a great leader and performed really well throughout his last season.
On the women’s side, there were also a number of notable performances.
Team captain Camille Dickson closed out her senior season with yet another long jump over 20 feet, which she’d done consistently all year, and finished in 20th place. In doing so, Dickson moved up from her regional ranking, having come in as the 29th qualifying seed.
Similar to Noah Carey, junior Claire Moreau just barely made the cut for the meet, entering as the 43rd seed and also performing well above her seed placement. Moreau came in 30th place with a high jump of 1.72m (5'-7.75").
The highlight of the entire meet for Penn came from freshman Isabella Whittaker, who ended up qualifying for semifinals.
Going into her first race, though, Whittaker didn’t know exactly what to expect.
“I think coming in I was ranked in that 10th to 15th kind of blurred line,” she said. “It was top 12 go [to semifinals], so it was anyone’s game.”
Whittaker achieved a time of 52.62 seconds in the 400m, putting her at third in her heat as well as 11th overall, which was good enough to qualify for the quarterfinal race.
While the performance allowed Whittaker to advance to the next race, she felt she could have done even better.
“I didn’t run it as well as I probably could have just because I had nervous energy,” Whittaker said. “It was my first meet against a lot of really fast runners in over a year, so that was definitely something that I was feeling anxious about coming into the race.”
Additionally, she felt that she didn’t push herself enough in the first 200m of the race because of her tendency to be more of a back-end 400m runner.
With more composure and with an emphasis on not falling behind too much in the first half of the race, Whittaker performed seven-tenths of a second better in her quarterfinal race, which was the last race of the meet for the Quakers.
“That was certainly kind of cool that our last thing that happened was honestly the most exciting performance probably of the whole weekend,” Dolan said.
Her time of 51.92 in the second race makes Whittaker one of only three women in Ivy League history to ever break 52 seconds in the 400m and gives her the Penn record in the event.
The strong finish landed her in 10th place, high enough to qualify for semifinals that will take place next week.
“I think she’s gonna compete great,” Dolan said. “This was her first big meet experience at Penn as a freshman, so she was undefeated on the season. The meets we did locally and in Philadelphia were smaller meets, so she hadn’t really seen races with that kind of competition, so it was neat to see her respond to that competition. I feel like she gained valuable experience here, so obviously she’s gonna see the best in the country at the NCAAs, but she’s right there and I think will compete admirably.”
Whittaker herself is grateful about the opportunity to compete at such a high level and is looking forward to the energy that comes with such a talented group of athletes.
Both Dolan and Whittaker are also hopeful about her chances at getting to the Olympic Trials cut, as she sits only .57 seconds away from it.
“That’s definitely something that’s on my mind, but it’s not something that I’m really stressed out about,” Whittaker said. “I’m just gonna run as fast as I can, and if that comes, then that comes. If it doesn’t, then I’m okay with that too.”
Whittaker will return for one last meet at the Championships on June 10 at the University of Oregon.