Women’s track & field ran the table in the Ivy Heptagonals.
BY DAVE ZEITLIN
When Abby Hong C’18 was being recruited to join the women’s track & field team a few years ago, she heard a familiar pitch.
“They were saying, ‘Yeah, we’re trying to build the program, trying to become a championship team,’” Hong recalled of her conversation with Penn track & field director Steve Dolan, who at the time was still relatively new on the job. “But I feel like a lot of coaches say that when they come in.”
Hong, an accomplished cross country runner from southern California, decided to make the plunge anyway. And her initial skepticism gradually evaporated as more talented athletes joined the team year after year.
The program’s rise culminated this spring season—Hong’s last—as the Quakers raced to the Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonal Championship for the first time in 30 years. That title came a little more than two months after Penn captured its first Indoor Heps crown since 1996.
“To actually see it through and finish it off my senior year at the top of the Ivy League, both indoor and outdoors, it really was just an incredible moment,” said Hong, who called this year’s squad the “best women’s [track] team in the history of the school.”
The senior played a big part in the transformation, winning all four of the major distance races at both the indoor and outdoor Heps after never having previously even scored at those events.
She credits her improvement to hard work, determination, and the addition this year of freshman Danielle Orie, who pushed Hong to greater heights as a training partner.
At outdoor Heps, held at Franklin Field in early May, Hong and Orie placed first and second, respectively, in the 10,000 meters, strategically running together until Hong outkicked her at the end. When they were told they wouldn’t get their medals until the next day, Hong turned to Orie and said, “We’re not going to be moving off those 1-2 podium spots when the 5K happens.” And they didn’t, finishing in the same position in the 5,000 before a roaring home crowd, helping the Quakers seal the victory with a school record 177 total points, the most of any Ivy team since Cornell in 2007.
Hong’s two individual championships were among 10 that Penn accumulated—also a school record.
“The team really rallied around her this year,” Dolan said. “All that she did this track season was pretty amazing. It’s always great when you can run at your best in your senior year, and she had that experience.”
Orie’s second-place finishes were also important for the Quakers, who got standout performances from several other freshmen. Among them were a trio who brought home outdoor Heps titles in their first year on campus: Brooke Cope (javelin), Uchechi Nwogwugwu (400 m) and Ashley Anumba (discus). In her race, Nwogwugwu delivered a school-record performance of 52.41 seconds, which ranked third in Ivy League history, while Anumba’s discus throw of 55.00 meters was good for second in Ivy Heps history and marked the program’s first discus title since 1990.
Anumba, who was voted Co-Most Outstanding Field Performer at Heps, followed that up by qualifying for the final round of the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon, along with junior Rachel Lee Wilson (hammer), sophomore Nia Akins (800 m) and junior Anna Peyton Malizia (high jump) — all of whom also previously won their events at Heps.
The four NCAA entrants set another program record for the Quakers.
“Within the team itself, everyone kept raising the bar of what they thought they could achieve,” Dolan said. “The higher you set the bar, the higher people jump sometimes. … It was definitely a full team effort and the success got contagious.”
Dolan credited a strong crop of underclassmen his coaching staff lured to Penn by preaching the school’s academics, Franklin Field, the Penn Relays, and the promise of championships.
Anumba, who in high school was ranked No. 2 in the country in discus, said she came to Penn mainly for the academics but was excited to join forces with several other promising underclassmen to make history on the track.
“We’re a young team and it’s crazy to think we have an extra two, three years,” Anumba said. “Hopefully we can set this tradition up and keep it going.”
Dolan said he’s excited for what’s to come, although he did admit the program will miss Hong and other seniors like Taylor McCorkle C’18, one of the best sprinters ever to come through Penn.
But Hong, who will move back West to work for a start-up in San Francisco, said she believes that the new culture of winning and escalated expectations will continue long after her graduation.
“I think this is kind of just the beginning,” she said.
A couple of things surprised freshman Zoe Belodeau about the Penn women’s lacrosse team’s 15–14 overtime win against Penn State in the NCAA tournament on May 11.
For starters, she had no idea how she scored a goal on a behind-the-back shot, saying she had never even tried it in a competitive situation.
“My parents were like, ‘I didn’t even know you could do that,’” she said. “And I was like, “I didn’t either!”
The second shock came after the game ended, when she started getting calls and texts from old friends asking if that was her on SportsCenter. “No, I don’t think so,” she told them, before realizing her trick-shot goal had indeed landed on the ESPN show’s iconic “Top 10 Plays” segment.
And that wasn’t even her most important goal of the game: With 1.8 seconds left in overtime, she scored a winner to send the Quakers into the Round of 16.
“It was just like an eruption of energy,” said Belodeau, who had five goals against Penn State and 45 on the season, a Penn rookie single-season record. “It felt like a dream,” she added. “Looking back at the videos and pictures, it’s hard to even notice that’s actually me out there.”
The women’s lacrosse squad, the University’s most dominant team in recent years, has produced plenty of star attacking players over the past decade. But few have burst onto the scene quite like Belodeau, who also set Penn’s rookie record in assists (35) and points (80), as well as the single-season draw control record (103). She was also second in the country among all rookies in assists, and her 80 points ranks third all-time in a season by a Quaker.
And she had one of her best performances against Yale in the regular-season finale, logging four goals and three assists to lead Penn to a piece of its 11th Ivy League championship in the last 12 years.
“Every day we practice on the Frank, and see all the banners lined up,” she said. “So it’s cool to be a part of one of them now.”
The Quakers’ season wasn’t perfect. They lost to rival Princeton, with whom they shared the regular-season crown, in the Ivy Tournament title game. And they were blown out by powerhouse Stony Brook—whose players, Belodeau said, did things “we’ve never seen before”—in the second round of NCAAs.
But Belodeau—who was recognized as an Inside Lacrosse All-American, along with senior Ivy League Defender of the Year Natalie Stefan, junior defender Katy Junior, and sophomore attacker Gabby Rosenzweig—is expecting even better things as a sophomore, saying the team is ready “to blow through the Ivy League.”
Another SportsCenter shout-out would just be an added bonus.