Sarah Bowman needed only to hear the increasing roar of the Villanova cheering section in the lower south stands of Franklin Field to know that she would soon have company on the anchor leg of the Penn Relays women's distance medley.

The Tennessee sophomore took the baton for the final 1,600-meter segment of the race with a 30-meter lead, but Villanova's Frances Koons caught and passed her with 500 meters to go, turning the featured race of yesterday's program into a test of guts and endurance.

Koons held on for as long as she could before Bowman kicked past her with 120 meters left and sealed the deal for the Volunteers in front of a crowd of 23,996 that enjoyed the entertaining race despite the overcast and cool conditions.

"You don't realize how fast you need to go; you don't have people there pushing you," Bowman said after hitting the finish line for Tennessee in 11 minutes, 9.16 seconds. "I knew who was behind me, and I knew she's a good runner, so I was ready in case she did what she did. I got mentally prepared because in races like this, you never know what's going to happen."

The Wildcats took second in 11:10.19 with the help of Koons' 4:37.0 split.

Bowman, who clocked 4:41.4 on her anchor leg, is no stranger to success at the carnival. She won two high school girls' mile runs while at Fauquier High in Warrenton, Va., in 2003 and 2004.

Yesterday, she was part of the Vols team, preceded by teammates Rose-Anne Galligan in the 1,200 meters, LaTonya Loche in the 400 and Leslie Treherne in the 800.

It was Tennessee's third win in the DMR Championship of America and second in the last four years. The last two victories have been directed by coach J.J. Clark, who ran for Villanova at the carnival in the mid-1980s.

"I've been coming here since I was in the sixth grade," Clark said. "We like the Penn Relays, and we understand them, and we have fun. It is important. It really is the national championship for outdoors. Where else can you run against all of these great teams in one race?"

With the same foursome competing, Tennessee was runner-up to North Carolina in the DMR at the NCAA indoor championships last month. The Tar Heels, who won three in a row at the carnival from 2001 through 2003, placed third yesterday.

Galligan, a freshman from Ireland, gave the Vols a narrow early lead yesterday before Loche ran a 52.9-second split to boost the margin to 15 meters. Treherne doubled the advantage on the strength of a 2:08.9 leg, with Villanova and Duke seemingly fighting for second.

But Koons, a junior from Allentown who has sophomore eligibility outdoors, took off. She closed to within 12 meters after her first two laps and then caught Bowman on the third.

"There was a whole Villanova cheering squad right there, and I could hear them, so I knew she was coming," Bowman said. "I let her take the lead. I just went with her pace. Mentally, I kept telling myself, 'Go with her. Go with her.' "

Koons said she wanted to run hard after receiving the baton. She did just that, but when she tried to respond to Bowman's final pass, she had nothing left.

"I felt good when I went past her," she said. "But that last 100 meters, I can't explain it. It was just not in my legs. I was fighting, but I couldn't make them go any faster."

Five schools qualified for the Championship of America events in both the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays. LSU posted the fastest time in the 4x400, 3:32.60, and the third-swiftest in the 4x100, 44.93. Auburn led all qualifiers in the 4x100 with a time of 44.62.

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.