At the core of the Penn Charter girls' cross-country team this championship season have been sisters Emma and Abby Zwall.
In addition to being two of the Quakers' top runners, Emma, a sophomore, and Abby, a senior, have exported their sisterly bonds to their teammates, and the squad has gained a reputation around the school as a tight-knit bunch both on and off the race course.
"We are known as being the closest group," Abby Zwall said of the cross-country team. Emma added that, if they see one of their teammates in the hallway, they run up and hug her.
The sisters, along with their talented teammates, dominated in the Inter-Ac League championship race at Belmont Plateau on Oct. 22. Emma, the defending champion, won in 19 minutes, .05.9 seconds. Abby, fourth last year, finished 10th. Overall, Penn Charter placed seven of its runners in the top 12 and won the team title, too. Academy of Notre Dame was second.
Penn Charter senior Mary McDavid was fifth in the championship race, sophomore Julia Dolce sixth, sophomore Lane Murray seventh, junior Alicia Newman 11th and junior Sophia Solomon 12th.
"The whole team did miraculously," Penn Charter coach Andy Zuccotti said. "The [Zwall] girls are a really big part of the success of the team. Their consistency, you saw that [in the league title race]. It wasn't Abby's best day, but even though it wasn't her best day it's immediately evident she is going to run as hard as she can no matter how she feels. That kind of inspiration really pulls the other girls along."
Then, to cap off the championship week, the Quakers won the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association girls' title meet on Oct. 27 at Belmont. Emma, the defending champion, finished fifth despite feeling poorly, and Abby was 13th.
Isabelle Goldstein of Germantown Academy won that race in 19:13.8. Penn Charter's McDavid was 10th, Dolce 12th, Murray 16th, Newman 18th and Solomon 20th.
As a senior captain on the team, along with McDavid and Hadley Ball, Abby said she relishes her role as a leader.
"It's great. Last year was my first year on the team, and most of my friends were captains," Abby said. "This year, it's a big responsibility. It's very different having to lead everyone."
After their father introduced them to running, Abby began cross-country when she was in kindergarten; Emma started when she was in the first grade. Last year was the first time the sisters ran on the same team. They said they both went through periods of playing other sports, but cross-country was the one that stuck.
"We had our soccer fling and our basketball fling," said Emma, who also tried dancing and volleyball.
Zuccotti, also a Penn Charter teacher, said he met Emma during a school open house two years ago. Abby was a sophomore at Villa Joseph Marie at the time and not looking to transfer. The open house had both academic and athletic offerings, and Emma was quick to express her interest in cross-country. Zuccotti spoke with her and her mother about the school's academics and athletics. The next day, Zuccotti looked up Emma's race times and was astonished.
"I couldn't believe what I saw," Zuccotti said. "This was a running prodigy kid."
Abby joined her sister at Penn Charter the next year.
"This wasn't a recruiting situation or anything like that. They came out of the blue. We got really lucky," Zuccotti said.
This season, Emma also won the George School Invitational 5,000 meters in 18:45.3 and the William Tennent Invitational 5,000 in 18:28.5
So far, the sisters say they plan to run cross-country in college, too. Abby has already taken some visits to Division III schools and said she may end up at Connecticut College. Emma said she tags along on the visits to get a feel for the process. But, she said, the girls have different interests, so they probably won't attend the same school.
"She is more into science, and I'm the opposite," Emma said.
On the race course, however, they run like sisters.