Marcus O’Sullivan and Gina Procaccio have been a part of more than their share of Penn Relays over the years, both as participants and as head track and field coaches at Villanova.
And while they will miss the traditional three-day Franklin Field carnival for a second straight year because of the pandemic, they are happy to be returning to the celebrated West Philadelphia stadium on the last Saturday in April to take part in a track and field meet.
The Penn Relays will host the Philadelphia Metropolitan Collegiate Invitational, combining some of the carnival’s long-established relays, including the distance medley and sprint medley, with individual events staged to allow athletes to establish qualifying times for future conference and NCAA meets.
Villanova, which has won more watches and hardware since the Penn Relays were established in 1895, will bring a sizable delegation of athletes, both men and women. In addition to individual events, the Wildcats will compete in the DMR, 4x800- and 4x400-meter relay on the men’s side, and in the 4x400 and sprint medley for women.
“We’re totally going to support it. I think it’s only right,” O’Sullivan, who is in his 23rd season as men’s head coach of the Wildcats, said Wednesday. “Hey, we have to come here every year anyway, so why not come this year? We’re sending quite a few kids down there.
“You look at the silver lining in everything. As much as we miss [the Penn Relays], we’re trying to utilize it to be productive for the season. It’s actually been more productive, I think, now for us because my three really good milers, I want to run them in the 4x8, and I want to move them into different parts of the DMR. I wouldn’t line it up that way if it was a typical Penn Relays year. So there’s some good things, too.”
In her 21st season as the Wildcats women’s head coach, Procaccio said her team was thankful just to be competing.
“Last year, we didn’t have the Penn Relays. We didn’t have any meets,” she said. “These kids had nothing, and I think we’re just grateful to have any opportunity. It’s great that Penn was able to pull something together to get excited about for this last weekend in April like we’re usually used to. It’s just like with everything else, you’re just grateful for any opportunity when so much has been lost.”
The “Philly Mets” will be a scaled-down meet, featuring 18 teams, all of which are within a 40-mile radius of Penn, a condition set by the Ivy League for the resumption of spring sports competition. No spectators will be allowed into Franklin Field, but they can watch the meet streaming on FloTrack.
All Big 5 schools are participating as well as Delaware and Rider from Division I. Four Division II schools and seven from Division III round out the field. The meet is the latest in a weekly series of track and field competitions set up by area coaches.
“Lots of times, we’ve had to travel to some of the bigger meets to try to get our kids the competition they need to get regional qualifiers and that sort of thing,” Procaccio said. “You just can’t bring everybody to all these meets. So it’s been great that we’re having these local meets where all the local coaches got together so that everybody gets opportunities. That’s been great. We’ve been supporting these local meets as much as we could.”
As for the pandemic, O’Sullivan said his athletes test twice a week, and will submit their latest test results on Friday night to make sure all is well for Saturday.
“We’re monitoring everything, keeping tight controls,” he said. “But it’s tiring, exhausting. It’s been a challenging year. The way to approach it, it’s just so much easier to decide you’re going to make something out of it knowing that it’s going to be a ton of work just to keep yourself afloat. But it’s been worth it nonetheless, and I think it’s a credit to the kids for their willingness to support each other.”
Three of his runners – graduate student Casey Comber, redshirt freshman Sean Dolan and junior Charlie O’Donovan – all have run sub-4-minute miles. At an April 10 meet in Oxford, Miss., Comber and Dolan made the program’s all-time top 10 in the 1,500 meters with Comber running 3 minutes, 37.76 seconds (fourth on the list), and Dolan 3:38.60 (seventh).
The Wildcats’ women’s 4x400 relay team will try to improve its qualifying position for next month’s NCAA East preliminaries in Jacksonville, Fla. The Wildcats are 20th on the list of 24 qualifiers and are anchored by graduate student McKenna Keegan, who set a personal best last month running 2:03.56 for 800.
So, while it’s not the Penn Relays, the Philly Mets will be a placeholder of sorts for when the carnival returns, hopefully next year from April 28-30, with contestants again crowding through the paddock, and the spectators seated in the “Woooo!” corner watching runners turn for home.
O’Sullivan said he’s had thoughts about whether being without the carnival for two years “breaks the cycle.”
“But at the same time, you could look at it the other way, that it could come back bigger and better than ever simply because of being deprived of it for a couple of years,” he said. “I’m optimistic thinking it’s that. It’s just such a special event. Amongst the bedlam and all the chaos and everything, it’s still a great place to be on the last full weekend of April.”