Sizing up Villanova's Penn Relays prospects

Posted: April 23, 2014

EVERY APRIL but two from 1984-97, Villanova's women won at least one middle-distance relay at Penn. Four times, they won twice. And in 4 other years, they swept all three.

In the next 14 years, they won twice, period. Then last year, they won two races for the first time since 1997. And they have pretty much the same runners back. So . . .

"Coming in, they know they can win," coach Gina Procaccio said. "The lineup may be a little bit different for a couple, but they all at least ran on one last year. I told them they've all won a leg at Penn, all brought in the lead no matter what leg they were on.

"It definitely feels better coming here with a team that you know can be in the mix, be competitive, that if everything goes right you can pull off a win or two. I feel the pressure [more] in the years where we know we're not very good and just wish we were.

"I approach Penn as a chance for us to just practice running. I tell them to throw away the watches and practice racing and winning. Everyone's won a leg before. If we all go in and do that, the team thing will take care of itself. They all know what their job is."

It all starts with Thursday's Distance Medley Relay, which the Wildcats have won a record 12 times. Now they're going for their first threepeat since they took five straight beginning in 1987. The 4 x 1,500 meters, which they haven't won since 2000, is Friday. A year ago, they finished third behind Michigan and Oregon. Finally, on Saturday, there's the 4 x 800. Last year, the Wildcats' Emily Lipari outkicked Oregon's Laura Roesler to win by inches in a collegiate record time of 8 minutes, 17.45 seconds. It was their first victory in that event in 16 years. Lipari, who also anchored the DMR, was named the Carnival's Outstanding Women's Relay Athlete. Now a senior, she'll likely anchor three times. Angel Piccirillo, Kelsey Margey and Nicky Akande, who ran the first three legs, return, as well. Stephanie Schappert, who will definitely run in the other two, could push for a spot in that, too. Lipari just won the mile at the NCAA indoor championships, after getting fifth at the cross country finals in November.

"Not many people can do that," Procaccio said. "She has incredible range. Her strength is the best it's ever been. Her speed's always going to be there. And this is by far the most confident she's ever been. Put her in a position to win and she'll get it done. That's her MO. She's not a kid that will kill herself to get third. But put her in a different position and she's a beast. It doesn't matter who she's up against. When she got the baton last year, I thought, 'Poor kid. This girl's going to kill her.' But she didn't really know who she was.

"Oregon has a really good lineup. But on paper, they were better than us last year. Anything can happen. I know what Oregon [can do]. I'm not going to tell [my athletes] that. I don't think they're really looking that stuff up. I tell them this is our turf, go out and fight like Villanovans."

On the men's side, 'Nova coach Marcus O'Sullivan plans to enter the three middle-distance races for the second straight year, something the Wildcats didn't do in his first 14 seasons. They've won the DMR a record 24 times, with 21 coming from 1956-81. But the last three have come since 2001, including 2009 and 2011. They also have a record 19 in the 4 x 800, and 18, two behind Arkansas, in the 4 x mile. They last won the 4 x 800 in 1992, and the 4 x mile in '93.

At least three of the people O'Sullivan figures to count on are senior Sam McEntee, junior Dusty Solis and freshman Jordy Williamsz, the latter, like McEntee, an import from Australia.

"We have a good bunch of guys to draw from," said the four-time Olympian, who, like Procaccio, knows what it feels like to take a victory lap at Franklin Field. "Some athletes really stand up and revel in what I call the pressure cooker. This is what it all kind of comes down to. You call them as you see them. I'm encouraging young athletes not to be afraid of it. It's a metaphor for life. You might have to make a presentation, or whatever, and you'll think of what you did at Penn. I've done that many times. You get your grade here, if you will. This is what it means to be at Villanova. Over time, you get accustomed to it.

"Other teams aren't under the same pressure, trust me. For us, it's different than anything else. I'm talking Olympics, everything. There's a loneliness about it, a love-hate relationship. You depend on each other. That's why it's so special. Nothing comes close. In my hometown of Cork [Ireland], you might have this audience of 5,000 or 10,000 people. They know you personally, they watched you grow up, expecting certain things. Family members might be there. It's an unusual kind of pressure. You can race in Berlin, or Italy, and you're just an athlete out there doing your job.

"For us, Penn is . . . a great experience to have. A lot of teams don't have it, because they don't have anything as big as this at home. It's a rarity to actually be exposed to it."

Last year, Penn State won the DMR for the first time in 54 years and the 4 x 800 for the second straight April. The last team to win that race three in a row was Penn State from 1985-87. Villanova was runner-up in both. Oregon is the defending champ in the 4 x mile. But all three look to be loaded with potential contenders. Penn State hasn't won the 4 x mile in 55 years.


On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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