Of the 17 women on Villanova’s women’s cross-country team, all but two hold freshman or sophomore eligibility.
The team combines the talent of its younger members with the experience of its decorated upperclassmen to form a squad with dynamic possibilities. The potential on both ends of the age spectrum is created by a rare balance of teamwork and leadership.
Senior Lydia Olivere, who was named the Big East’s women’s runner of the week this past week, is one of the team’s leaders and most accomplished runners. The Wilmington native holds Villanova’s record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 9:49:88. She also holds Big East titles in the steeplechase and the 5,000 meters and competed in the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2021. Olivere plans to use this wealth of experience to help her teammates.
“It’s more of a leadership role in a way, so I definitely don’t take that lightly,” said Olivere. “I want to try to help them along, but I just kind of take it as an opportunity to be like, ‘OK, I’ve been through this program now,’ you know, like three-plus years, whatever, and I’ve been through the NCAA, so I feel like it’s my job now to kind of teach them and help them along so they can have the best experience, so it’s been good so far.”
Head coach Gina Procaccio also sees more than just athletic prowess in Olivere. She describes the senior as a natural-born leader and thinks her presence is invaluable on the young squad.
“I knew with her rising to a higher level and her excellent leadership skills, that she would start to lead this team, you know, back to the greatness that we once were,” said Procaccio.
Another key figure in restoring Villanova women’s cross country to greatness is freshman Sadie Sigfstead. Despite her age and newness to the program, the freshman from Canada has already been placing at meets, emerging as a major contributor for the Wildcats.
Competing against runners who may be older and have more experience is nothing new for Sigfstead, who won the Under-18 Canadian Nationals Meet when she was just 14. Despite a successful running career in Canada, Sigfstead decided to attend college in the United States so she could test herself against NCAA competition.
“I think Canada has a lot of great things to offer, and it’s definitely an up- and-coming system that they have there,” said Sigfstead. “But I thought the NCAA challenged me in ways that Canada couldn’t, just the competition down here, the depth, it’s incredible. In order to get to the place I want to see myself in my fifth or fourth year, I think the U.S. was the place I felt most comfortable and confident that they could bring me there.”
Procaccio said that Sigfstead has been huge for the program. In her two meets so far, she placed second in the three-mile at the Main Line Invitational and fifth in the 6,000 meters at the Paul Short Run.
“She’s a game-changer,” Procaccio said. “There are some freshmen that come in and they’re able to contribute right away, and she’s one of them. She’s got a lot of experience, she’s run international competitions in cross- country and done very well and got on the podium. We knew she would come in, mix it up right away, and definitely help the team as a whole.”
Despite Sigfstead’s talent and potential, she is still a freshman trying to figure out her place on a new team in a new country. For her, the leadership on the team is so important and she credits her quick transition to the guidance she has gotten from Olivere. Sigfstead had expected most seniors to be focused on their own careers, and instead, she has noticed that Olivere cares deeply about her younger teammates.
“She’s trying to make sure that I know, giving me tips while we’re running the course and where I can maybe surge or push and I think that really helps,” Sigfstead said. “Her priority is making sure freshmen know what to do on race day and I think that’s super sweet of her.”
This team culture is important to these women, who will compete at the University of Wisconsin next Friday before their runs in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. As a team, Villanova is ranked No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic Region and #20 nationally.
After missing out on competition seasons because of COVID-19, Olivere feels that the team has been preparing and the runners are ready for this moment.
“It has been definitely different getting back into the routine, but I feel like this year it’s been really nice, everyone came in super motivated,” Olivere said. “We knew what we had to look forward to and our expectations this year as a team. And I think that’s definitely resonated through everyone.”
As for individual goals this season, Olivere hopes to break her own record in the steeplechase, and Sigfstead said they are all chasing All-American honors or a spot in the top 50. Both the runners and Procaccio believe they will finish the season strong.
“I think it’s realistic to think that we could be a top 10 team by the end of the season,” said Procaccio.
These goals are tangible for this team, as the members clearly care for one another and the group as a whole. Their mix of experience and dedication to helping out the new runners has cultivated an environment conducive to success.
“We have the same goals; we’re really focused at practice, but it’s just a super-close-knit team,” Sigfstead said. “I always feel comfortable around them, even though I’m so new and so young and the older girls have been super good about welcoming me in and making sure that I’m feeling OK with the whole process because it can be overwhelming. But it’s better than I could have ever expected.”