April 23, 2015
Unfazed by what surely has to be Mother Nature’s last arctic blast of this interminable winter season, chilled and wind-blown track & field athletes and fans congregated inside venerable, ivy-covered Franklin Field for the first day of the 121st running of the Penn Relay Carnival. This three-day celebration of track & field kicks off with what in essence is a type of “Ladies Day.” Prior to Thursday evening’s Distance Night, Day One at Penn exclusively features running events and field competitions for female athletes.
The steady drumbeat of 47 heats of the high school girl’s 4 x 400 meter relay warmed the shivering throng in preparation for what customarily is one of the marquee events of Day One at Penn: the Collegiate Women’s Distance Medley Championship of America. Penn’s returning fans easily recall last year’s stirring collegiate women’s DMR when hometown favorite Villanova pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind victory as Wildcat senior anchor Emily Lipari turned in a sparkling 4:33.44 1600 meter anchor leg to catch and overcome Stanford’s Aisling Cuffe on the homestretch for the win. The ‘Cats DMR triumph was the first of three Lipari-anchored 2014 Penn Relay wins for the Villanova women and resulted in Lipari being honored as the women’s relay athlete of the meet – the first person to receive that distinction in consecutive years.
While past Penn glories offer wonderful memories, those victories of yesteryear do little to impact outcomes in future years. This year is new – and different. Lipari – lost to graduation – is now a young professional middle distance runner trying to make her mark. And while experienced Wildcat athletes Angel Piccirillo and Stephanie Schappert will run two of the critical legs on ‘Nova’s DMR squad, it was unclear if the Wildcats had sufficient firepower to hold off the likes of revenge-seeking Stanford, Georgetown, and North Carolina.
Just before the DMR got under way, Villanova made a slight departure from their earlier-announced lineup by shifting Wildcat veteran Angel Piccirillo from anchor to the 1200 meter leadoff leg. It proved to be a good move. Letting the race unfold over the opening two laps, Piccirillo stayed patient before taking charge. After early, short-lived leads by Yale and North Carolina, Angel made a strong move to the front just as the leaders passed 800 meters in 2:16. Working to ensure her teammates would enjoy the best advantage, Piccirillo pushed hard over the final circuit to increase the ‘Nova lead as she clocked 3:23.25 to give her teammate Michaela Wilkins a lead of some 20 meters.
With Stanford and North Carolina pressing from behind, Wilkins held serve on the speedy 400 meter second carry. Splitting 56.30 on the 400 meter second leg, Wilkins preserved the Villanova lead while Stanford – on the strength of a 53.61 split by its quarter miler Kristyn Williams – moved up into second, with LSU third, and North Carolina rounding out the top four.
Aided by Villanova’s still-sizeable lead, Siofra Buttner set sail on the third leg – 800 meters – for the Wildcats. Running up front and out of trouble, the Irish freshman – competing in her first ever Penn Relay event – did not disappoint. While the Stanford Cardinal closed slightly in the final 200 meters, Buttner’s 800 meter split of 2:09.91 was strong enough to give Wildcat anchor Stephanie Schappert a 15 meter lead as the all-important 1600 meter anchor leg commenced.
Villanova coach Gina Procaccio – a veteran of the Penn Wars – is savvy enough to always place a trusted upperclassman on the final DMR leg. Last year it was Lipari. This year the ‘Cat coach went with battle-tested Schappert who ran on Villanova’s victorious DMR quartet here at Penn last year. It was the right call. Shortly after Schappert grabbed the stick to begin the final blustery leg, Stanford anchor Elise Cranny made an early surge to tuck in behind the Villanova runner as a gusty wind continued to whistle through Franklin Field. With Villanova and Stanford jousting for the win on the final carry, the women’s DMR championship race suddenly evoked memories of last year’s distance medley battle between these same two women’s teams. 600 meters into the final leg, the Cardinal freshman surged to take the lead while the Villanova runner quickly covered that move. Buffeted by the wind and sensing the race would come to down to a race-ending kick, the two leaders moderated their leading pace allowing North Carolina anchor Annie LeHardy to join the lead duo as the three anchors split 800 meters in 2:22. As the trio sped past 1200 meters in 3:33, Cranny picked up the pace as the final lap began. Schappert kept pace while UNC’s LeHardy could not. Just like last year’s women’s DMR, the Villanova athlete stalked her Stanford rival on the final backstretch. As modern day philosopher Yogi Berra would say, “It was dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.” With 200 meters remaining, the crowd grew restless in anticipation as Schappert pulled up on Cranny’s shoulder. Have we seen this movie before? As the two racers spun around the final curve, passing the Wall Of Fame, Schappert cut loose with a smooth and decisive surge, easily disposing of her west coast rival, crossing the line in 11:09.06, and securing a 4th consecutive Penn Relays women’s DMR title for Villanova. Stanford hung on for second and Georgetown – with the Hoya’s Katrina Coogan posting the fastest anchor time of the afternoon in 4:39.03 – closed hard to get up for third.
In the post-race press conference, the Main Line athletes and their coach savored their win as they offered their take on Villanova’s victory. “We knew there were a lot of good teams in this race and we were gonna need a little help on the back end of the relay so I wanted to do whatever I could to help out,” explained leadoff runner Piccirillo. “I just wanted to stay relaxed for the first half of the race and then just bring it home hard.”
Villanova’s third runner Siofra Buttner reflected upon her first Penn Relays competition and the track & field heritage at Villanova. “I knew about the big legacy and the boots that needed to be filled to continue with this big event. I was excited to be able to start my journey here.”
“I have so much faith in these girls,” declared Schappert. The Villanova anchor cited how she was inspired by her teammates. “Seeing Angel open up that huge lead and seeing Michaela and Sofria fight to hold it up, I was like ‘you’re gonna have to kill me before I give up this win.'”
“You never get tired of winning,” added Coach Procaccio while reflecting on Villanova’s record 13th all-time win in the collegiate women’s distance medley relay. “It was definitely an awesome four person victory. I’m excited for them and really proud of them. This is our turf and they ran like true Villanovans.”
The Lady Wildcats will be back out on their “turf” again Friday afternoon as a packed Franklin Field crowd will see if the Villanova women can successfully defend their title in the collegiate women’s 4 x 1500 Championship of America Invitational. Dave Hunter
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