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Penn Relays: Villanova’s Penn Relays Pressure Cooker

The following is a guest post by Bill Clark, former operator of the Villanova Running blog and one of the foremost experts on Villanova's track and field history and present.


By: Bill Clark
Villanova Running (@RunNova)

The annual Penn Relays are much more than just another spring track and field meet for Villanova athletes and coaches.  Listening to Marcus O’Sullivan and Gina Procaccio talk about the intense pressure of the meet, it’s not a stretch to say that the Penn Relays are even more important to the Villanova program than the NCAA outdoor championship meet.

"Other teams aren't under the same pressure, trust me," O’Sullivan admitted this week.  "For us, it's different than anything else. I'm talking Olympics, everything."

Indeed, both Villanova coaches have a love-hate relationship with the Penn Relays: decades of unparalleled success (a total of 120 relay titles since 1955) at what is essentially a home meet for Villanova have combined to raise expectations each year to such a level as to unnerve even the most seasoned performers.  This year will be no different.

The glory events at the Penn Relays are, in order, the Distance Medley Relay (or DMR), the 4xMile relay, and 4x800 meter relay.  The Villanova men have won these three races a total of 61 times, but recent success (2009 and 2011) has been had only in the DMR (it’s been 20 years or more since the Villanova men have won either the 4x800 or the 4xMile).  Marcus O’Sullivan will send out relay teams at all three distances this week, with Villanova best chances seeming to be in the DMR and 4xMile.

Villanova men’s side is typically deep in milers, currently boasting three sub-4:00 men in Sam McEntee, Jordy Williamsz, and Rob Denault.  Dusty Solis and Patrick Tiernan are possibilities for the fourth position.  The DMR (four legs of 1200, 400, 800, and 1600 meters, respectively) will feature McEntee, Sam Ellison, and Jordy Williamsz, with it still unclear who (McEntee or Williamsz) will run the anchor leg.   The best bet is McEntee (1200) and Williamsz (1600) bookending the quartet, with Ellison running a key 800 meter leg.  Watch for Dusty Solis, Josh Lampron, and Chris FitzSimons as possibilities in the 4x800 as well.  Look for Oregon, Penn State, and Villanova to be battling in the front in all three races.

The Villanova women will have a hard time duplicating last year’s success, when they took both the DMR and 4x800 titles – the latter in dramatic fashion as Emily Lipari pipped Oregon anchor Laura Roesler at the line to help set a new NCAA record of 8:17.45.  Lipari will anchor both the women’s DMR and 4x800 (and likely the 4x1500 quartet as well).  In the 4x800 race, all four legs from last year’s winning squad return: Kelsey Margey, Angel Piccirillo, Nicky Akande, and Lipari.  However, it took an NCAA record from Villanova to beat Oregon last year, and the Ducks look strong again in 2014.

Look for Stephanie Schappert to play a key role as well, in the DMR and 4x1500. Schappert has had a strong spring, boosting Villanova’s chances in both races. The Villanova women haven’t won the 4x1500 since 2000, but should be a strong contender this year.

"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."

Much of the focus will be on last year’s Penn Relays most outstanding female relay performer Emily Lipari,who seems to be at the peak of her powers: she came in 5th at the NCAA cross country nationals (over 6K) in November and won the NCAA indoor mile title last month.  She’s likely to anchor all three relays.

While the structure of Villanova’s program cannot really expect to produce NCAA team titles, winning the marquee events at the Penn Relays requires just what Villanova tends to have: significant depth in the middle distances.  It’s hard to remember a recent year when both the Villanova men and women (especially) were quite this deep in the 800/1500/mile.  Whether this depth translates into more Championship of America wheels will depend on how these athletes perform under pressure.

"Some athletes really stand up and revel in what I call the pressure cooker," said O’Sullivan. "This is what it all kind of comes down to. . . . This is what it means to be at Villanova. Over time, you get accustomed to it."