Updated: Jan 13
Next up in our XC Top 25 come the Penn State Nittany Lions who return four of their top five from the 2018 cross country season. The women of Penn State were quietly one of the better teams in the country last fall and still found notable success in a loaded BIG 10 conference. With a handful of promising young scorers, the ladies of Penn State could be ready for a breakout year in 2019.
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Last year, the women of Penn State won both the Lock Haven Dolan Duals and the Spiked Shoe Invitational to start their season. At the Lock Haven Dolan Duals, the women swept the first seven spots while sporting a strong 27 second time spread within their top five. A week later, Penn State easily defeated Syracuse by 23 points at the Spiked Shoe Invite. It was an encouraging start to the season, but the real challenges were still to come.
Despite two 1st place finishes, their performance at the Nuttycombe may have been slightly underwhelming for a team that likely wanted more. The Nittany Lions were led by Julia Paternain who was the second true freshman across the line, placing 30th overall to give her team a scoring presence near the top of the race. Sophomores Allison Willingmyre and Danae Rivers were not far behind, finishing 45th and 50th, respectively.
Between those three, Penn State had a formidable trio. However, the #4 and #5 runners were a bit too far back in 90th and 104th, forcing the women from State College to settle for a 13th place finish.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, a 13th place finish at such a massive meet truthfully wasn't that bad. Their top five scorers all finished in the upper half of the field which helped them pull ahead of programs like Oklahoma State and Southern Utah.
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Penn State’s third victory of the season came at the Penn State Nationals Open. Paternain was on fire as she established herself as a legitimate low-stick for the team by taking home the individual title. Willingmyre and Rivers once again gave the team a solid top three by placing 5th and 7th, respectively. Kathryn Munks stepped up to give the team a respectable #4 with a 15th place finish. Although their #5 dropped to 34th place, the Nittany Lions still did enough to hold off conference rival Michigan State for the team win.
But at the BIG 10 Championships, the roles were switched. Penn State wasn't racing on their home course and wasn't able to keep up with the Spartan's firepower. A 4th place finish at their conference meet - behind Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin - left PSU in limbo. It was clear that the team was talented, but it was becoming more and more difficult to gauge where they stood relative to their competition.
After a surprise performance from Princeton, the Penn State women settled for 3rd at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships and received an at-large bid for NCAA's. For the first time that season, Paternain struggled and ended the day as the team's #5 runner. Luckily, Willingmyre and Rivers stepped up and locked down a pair of top 10 finishes. With Kathryn Munks placing 15th, it was clear that Penn State had done enough to make up for Paternain's off day.
A season highlighted by notable progression eventually ended with a 20th place finish at Nationals. Rivers led the team in 87th and Willingmyre finished 94th, but the team's youth and inexperience was ultimately what kept them from finishing any better than that.
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This fall could be a big one for Penn State. They have a clear low-stick in Julia Paternain as well as key supporting scorers in Willingmyre and Rivers. That is a very good top three with a lot of room to improve. Additionally, returning Kathryn Munks will be a valuable scoring asset as the Nittany Lions attempt to solidify the backend of their lineup.
On paper, Penn State has a top four that could elevate the team to an entirely new level which is why we have them at #14 in our rankings. Still, there are legitimate concerns about their depth. With Moira O'Shea now headed to Oregon, the team's #5 spot (which was already shaky to begin with) is now up in the air.
That #5 position shouldn't be a major issue at smaller meets like the Penn State National Open, but at larger invites like Nuttycombe and Nationals, that could be an area of vulnerability from a scoring perspective. If someone in their top three has a bad day (like we saw with Paternain during the regional and national meets) then that will need to be addressed.
Luckily, the ladies in Blue and White bring in a pair of respectable distance recruits. Katherine Fedko (18:21 5k) and Kileigh Kane (10:48 3200) could be candidates who are capable of filling in the backend of PSU's varsity lineup. As we saw last year, Penn State isn't afraid to utilize their younger talents and in some instances (i.e. Paternain) it can pay off for them big time. It's a gamble to rely on true freshmen, but given their limited options, that may become a reality.
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The Nittany Lions have solid runners, they just need to find a way to put all the pieces together on the big stage. The women on this team are capable of finishing in the top half of the national meet and establishing themselves as top-tier program in the BIG 10.
This team is young, but that will not stop them from showing off their talent this fall...