It's been longer than one cares to remember since Harvard has been a decided underdog in a cross-country meet. But when coach Bill McCurdy brings seven men and an eight-meet unbeaten skein to New York's Van Cortlandt Park at 3 p.m. today, the Crimson will have to run far above its ability if it hopes to catch what may be the best Penn squad ever assembled.
The Quakers, who breezed through their dual meet schedule undefeated last year, lost no major performers through graduation. In fact, they've added two sophomores, superstar Denis Fikes and Jim Rafferty, from an unbeaten freshman team. Thanks to a new Ivy eligibility rule, they also feature freshman Dave Merrick, an 8:41 two-miler in high school.
"With their material, they should be thinking about winning the IC4A meet," says McCurdy. "They have a really outstanding club--probably too strong for us at this stage in our development."
Yet despite the Quakers' obvious superiority, there is considerable caution around Philadelphia when the subject of Harvard comes up. Only a month after Penn clobbered Harvard, 20-41, last year at Van Cortlandt Park to snap the Crimson's 34-meet winning streak, the Crimson rebounded to upset the Quakers on the same course, and capture its fifth consecutive Heptagonal title.
Penn coach Jim Tuppeny remembers that loss, and apparently, he will consider Harvard the Ivy champions until his runners are able to win a Hep crown.
The Crimson, meanwhile, have been putting another streak together, and it reached eight when sophomore Rick Rojas led his teammates to a 21-38 victory over Northeastern two days ago. It was an encouraging triumph over a reasonably solid team, especially since Harvard was without the service of seven men, including veterans George Barker, Jeff Brokaw and Mark Connolly.
But even if Harvard were at full strength for today's meet, it would have its hands full. With McCurdy bringing only seven men to New York, including three who are running in only their second five-mile race, the prospects are rather dismal.
Penn's obvious strategy--one that has worked for both squads over the past two years--would encompass a bird-dogging tactic, wherein four or five runners hover near the top two Crimson men, and force them to run off their normal pace, alternately passing them, until they burn out.
In 1969, Quaker Julio Piazza won the race easily, but four Harvard runners destroyed Penn's depth and the Crimson took an easy victory. Last year, Penn used the same tactic, and although Harvard's Tom Spengler won without problem, no less than six Penn runners came in directly behind him.
Harvard's Rojas and senior Mike Koerner are the obvious bird-dog prey today, and Penn has five men, all nearly equal in ability, who will be hounding them.
Piazza, captain Karl Thornton, junior Bob Childs and Merrick finished in a dead heat for first place last weekend in a 15-50 victory over Lehigh and LaSalle, with Fikes close on their heels. They run naturally and well as a unit, and unless Harvard's Marshall Jones and John Quirk can pressure them, there is a distinct possibility that they can badger Rojas and Koerner out of contention.
"It would be interesting to match Rojas and Piazza, or Koerner and Thornton, or any two head and head," McCurdy says. "But here, you're asking one man to run against five. The odds just aren't with you."
Junior Tom New and sophomores Freddy Linsk and Jerry Hines round out the traveling squad for today's meet. Linsk and Hines, both running in their second five-mile race, could have a major bearing on the Crimson's success if they can adapt to the distance and the added pressure, but they will have to crack the Quakers' secondary wave of Rafferty, Ken Keehn and Frank O'Connor. It is a lot to ask, and it may be too much at this stage of the season.
Perhaps by November, if the Crimson's injuries heal, Penn may again be within Harvard's grasp, as they were last fall. But for now, McCurdy may have to be content with the Crimson's 18th straight victory over Columbia, a third and deservedly unheralded entrant in the meet.
Harvard's freshman, all but excluded from participating in the varsity meet by a University ruling, will have to be content with competition in the subvarsity meet, scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
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