Feasting At Penn's Banquet Table
April 25, 2014
This is the way track & field should be in heaven: the quintessential sunny spring day with gentle breezes and temperatures in the mid-60's; the three ring circus that is Penn in full throttle; and a tapestry of fans comprised of thousands of people from all walks of life, gleefully witnessing fabulous athletic performances at every turn and rejoicing at finally being released from the bondage of an especially punishing East Coast winter.
Drinking it all in at Franklin Field is a little like trying to quench your thirst from a fire hose. But if you are observant, you can pick from the powerful non-stop spray of Penn events several sparkling strands of performance: the Texas A&M women combining blinding speed with precise baton exchanges to win the Championship Of America 4 x 100 relay for the 6th year in a row; Villanova's Emily Lipari elbow-to-elbow with Stanford's Aisling Cuffe on the anchor leg of the 4 x1500 relay and reproducing the same victorious homestretch drive she unleashed the preceding day to win the DMR; a look into the future as Edwin Allen rode exquisite passing to run away with the C of A high school girls 4 x 100 title; a cavalcade of age-group 100 meter dash fields concluding with the men's 70+ field that can still clock 14 seconds; Olympian and Texas A&M anchor Deon Lendore floating a seemingly-effortless, uncontested 44.63 final 400 to set up a much-awaited 4 x 400 throw down between the Aggies and LSU in Saturday's final; and true Oregon freshman anchor Edward Cheserek uncorking a jaw-dropping down shift on the last lap of the C of A DMR, covering the final 200 in a reported 25 seconds to simply blow away Kentucky, Stanford, and Villanova. Those who blurt inknowingly that track & field is an unexciting sport that is dying have never spent a day at the Penn Relays.
There is a certain camaraderie in relay racing - especially on the collegiate level. It promotes a refreshing kinship that brings out the best in the human spirit. It was never more evident than in the post-race press conference with the members of Villanova's winning 4 x 1500 relay team and their coach Gina Procaccio. "This one is pretty special because we haven't won this race in 14 years," observed Coach Procaccio . "We're known as being 800 and 1500 meter runners, so for us not to win this in that many years kind of bothered me a bit. And the girls understood that. They all know what Villanova is all about, the legacy," explained Procaccio, paying homage to Villanova's heritage as a middle distance and distance powerhouse. Citing the Lady Wildcats' winning time of 17:16.52 - 8th all-time at Penn - the 'Nova coach summed it up succinctly, "They just went out and did their job. Leg for leg, they got it done. Good job, ladies," concluded Procaccio with a nod to her smiling athletes.
All four of Procaccio's middle-distance stars appreciated the significance of what they - working as a team - had just accomplished. "I think this is something pretty special," observed veteran team leader and Wildcat anchor Emily Lipari. "It definitely takes four girls to win these relays - absolutely not just one." Lipari also understands the Villanova culture of team support and its importance. "When you come here [Villanova], you get a lot of built-up support. And we have everybody stand at every corner screaming for Villanova. Everybody wants to do this for each other. We have worked for three or four years now together. And to be on all of these wins together, it is pretty special."
Even the younger athletes on the team know and respect the Villanova way. "It was good to be out there to do the job and to accomplish what we came out here for," offered leadoff runner Stephanie Schappert. "We came to Villanova to be part of a winning team effort."
Angel Piccirillo, who came up big on leg two - churning out a 4:17.4 to put the Lady Wildcats in a great contending position - was glad to lace up her racing flats. "This was my first race of the weekend. I wanted to get out there and see what I could do. I wanted it to be a big day. We're all coming around training-wise. I was really anxious to get out there."
Nicky Akande, running the critical third leg, brought the stick into her anchor teammate Lipari just a half stride behind the leading Stanford team. "I definitely wanted to give it to Emily so she would be right there, not really giving an inch. I knew she would be fine."
The Villanova women had set the race up perfectly for their anchor Lipari. Now it was up to the NCAA indoor mile champion to close the show. "Nicky gave it [the baton] to me exactly where I like to have it - so I can watch what is going on," confided Lipari who stalked the Stanford junior from behind. Lipari knew the task at hand. "I've raced Cuffe for 5 or 6 years now and we know each other very well. She is quite a competitor." With just over 200 meters remaining - and exactly like the conclusion of the distance medley relay the preceding day - Cuffe was holding on to a 5 meter lead over Lipari. As they passed the Wall of Fame, the Wildcat anchor got up on Cuffe's shoulder, exploded off the turn, and powered by the Cardinal anchor on the homestretch to replicate Villanova's DMR win. "I just heard Angel screaming for me on the turn, 'How bad do you want it?'," explained Lipari who clocked 4:16.4 on her anchor leg. "And I thought, 'I want this pretty bad.'"
As the day concluded, thousands of fans poured out of Franklin Field. Tired but happy, they were no doubt reflecting upon a second straight day of over-stimulation provided by non-stop action on the track and in the field. The departing spectators also likely looked ahead to Penn's concluding day - a Saturday packed with exciting finals, the 15th annual mini-series of "USA vs. The World", and the infamous and raucous Jamaican section - all unfolding in an historic stadium which will be filled with 48,000 gung ho spectators. More than a few had to wondering if they had the stamina for yet another such frenetic, action-packed day. For those wavering fans, Villanova's Angel Piccirillo has a question for you: "How bad do you want it?"