After finishing fifth at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals, Penn State will look to build on a solid season moving forward.
The blue and white has been fairly successful over the last decade, but its finish last season was a let down compared to previous seasons.
The Nittany Lions will return their entire squad with the exception of three players, most notably star runner Alison Willingmyre.
Willingmyre was a four-time All-Region honoree and three-time NCAA Championship qualifier in her time at Penn State. The fifth-year senior was also named the Nittany Lions’ in-house MVP in December 2021, at the team’s award banquet, signifying just how important she was to the roster.
Willingmyre just barely missed qualifying for the nationwide competition as she finished in 15th place at regionals in the women’s 6K event with a time of 20:50.4. She will certainly be a big loss in this upcoming season, but there is an assortment of young athletes on the team that could take the next step.
Standout underclassman Madaline Ullom will likely be the leader for Penn State, following her 27th-place finish at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals and several races with a sub-22-minute 6K run.
Entering a new cross country season in 2022, Ullom is searching for her first All-Big Ten honor and will be the focal point for a Nittany Lions team that hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2015.
Penn State will also bring back Makenna Krebs, who’s proven to be a great contributor for the program her first two years. Heading into her third season in the blue and white, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native will look to improve on her 35th-place finish at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals.
Krebs’ best performance last year came at the Lehigh Paul Short Run when she finished with a career-best time of 21:20.2 in the 6K.
Faith DeMars will be yet another cornerstone piece for the Nittany Lions. DeMars finished just two spots behind Krebs at regionals, placing 37th in the competition.
Now a third-year, DeMars will be one of the veteran voices in the locker room and could provide leadership alongside Krebs.
The last key to the puzzle is Sera Mazza, who posted a 21:44.3 in her 6K run at regionals in her sophomore season. Mazza’s top-50 finish could complete what should be a very solid top-four group for Penn State.
To be successful, though, the blue and white will need some help from outside of that top four.
With a slew of returning runners, most of the core of a good team remains. With many of those runners becoming upperclassmen this fall, the team’s window for success is short.
Coach John Gondak will begin his ninth season at the helm of the cross country program when the campaign begins in the fall.
Gondak also served on Penn State’s coaching staff as an assistant for eight years prior to becoming the main man, so he’s more than familiar with the program.
In his time as coach, he has overseen 52 individual Big Ten champions and 66 school records set. This also included two Big Ten team titles since he joined the program 16 years ago.
With Gondak, a former Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year, leading the charge, Penn State hopes it can return to its pre-pandemic form, when it won four region titles in a five-year span.
Getting back to the top should be an achievable goal for the Nittany Lions in the upcoming season.
The program’s goal should first be to capture a Big Ten title for the first time in seven years — something it can do if it finds a way to return to dominant form.
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