The carnival is loaded this year. From last month's NCAA indoor championships, the top six finishers on the men's side are here, as are seven of the top nine among the women. The teams that enjoyed the most success last year - the women's distance relays of Tennessee and the men's and women's sprint relays of Texas A&M - are well-stocked in their attempts to duplicate their 2009 deeds.
The meet will enjoy an extra buzz Saturday, when world-record holder Usain Bolt leads a group of world-class professionals in the six-race USA vs. the World series, now in its 11th year. Bolt, an international superstar and three-time Olympic gold medalist, made his first appearance at Penn as a 14-year-old Jamaican high school runner in 2001.
Tennessee's women won three events last year, setting meet and collegiate records in the 4x800 and 4x1500, as well as capturing the distance medley. Though the Vols lost Sarah Bowman, last year's outstanding female athlete in relay events, to graduation, they have plenty back.
Senior Phoebe Wright, the NCAA champion at 800 meters, is expected to run all three along with sophomore Chanelle Price, who graduated from Easton (Pa.) High and once trained in Roxborough with the United Stars Track Club.
"You don't know what's going to happen," Tennessee coach J.J. Clark said. "So you put your best team out there and have them perform at their best, whatever that is. That is our goal, leave it on the track."
Texas A&M enjoyed a dominating Penn Relays in 2009, with its men and women each winning the 4x100 and 4x200. The Aggies will shoot to repeat in those four, plus contend in the men's and women's 4x400 and the men's sprint medley relay.
Gerald Phiri and Tran Howell return from last year, with NCAA champion Curtis Mitchell providing even more speed. Porscha Lucas and Gabby Mayo, who has run a world-leading 11.13 in the 100 this year, ran on both of the Aggies' winning women's teams in 2009.
"We were fortunate and had a good Penn Relays last year," A&M coach Pat Henry said. "Some years, you go up there and you feel like you've got a pretty good group and you just don't hit on that day. But we hit last year."
The men's sprint relays boast another strong team in Florida, the indoor national champion, which has talented runners in Calvin Smith, Jeffrey Demps, Terrell Wilks, and Christian Taylor. The Gators have clocked the world's best times this year in the 4x200 and the 4x400.
There are plenty of teams that can contend in any number of relays, and that includes Oregon, which won the women's team title last month at the NCAAs while its men finished tied for second.
The Ducks, who never have won a Championship of America race, are deep and talented, particularly in the distance relays. According to coach Vin Lananna, six men have broken 4 minutes for the mile while four women have clocked at least 4:15 for 1,500 meters.
"It's a matter of picking which four and making sure we don't overrun them," Lananna said of the men's race at Penn. "But our objective will be to come out and try to win the race. If the conditions are right, maybe we'll try to run fast."
If that happens Saturday, Oregon could threaten its collegiate record of 16 minutes, 3.24 seconds in the 4xmile, set last year. Andrew Wheating, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, and Matthew Centrowitz, an event winner at Penn while at Broadneck (Md.) High School, return from that team.
Oregon also will present a threat to Tennessee in the women's distance relays, as will Villanova, which is seeking its first win in the distance medley since 2006.
Another race of note will be Saturday's men's 4x800 relay, where a deep field will take aim at the oldest record in Championship of America races, 7:11.17, set by Penn State in 1985 - 25 years ago.
The Nittany Lions, owners of a 2010 world best of 7:18.72 in the event, have a local runner on their unit in junior Owen Dawson, a Coatesville High graduate.
"We are well aware of [the record] here at Penn State," coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said. "Our guys are hungry and excited. But they're looking at a Penn Relays win. We're not worried about the time right now."
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org