VILLANOVA WAS the favorite. Not only to win the race, but perhaps even to challenge a 24-year-old world record set by another group of Wildcats at these same Penn Relays. But sometimes the storyline doesn't turn out to be as much about who takes the victory lap as how it unfolds.
This was one of those instances.
The Distance Medley Relay is the marquee event of the Carnival's opening day, even if it did start some 90 minutes late because of lightning delays. Yet as far as the Wildcats - who'd recently hoisted the hardware at the NCAA indoor championships in program-record time - were concerned, it was over before things ever had a chance to get interesting.
First, freshman Emily Lipari ran what she called a "sluggish" 1,200-meter leadoff leg that left the team in 10th place. Yet still maybe not out of it. Then, Christie Verdier (400) got hit just after she took the baton, which dropped to the ground. And that made any hopes of a rally officially undoable.
Georgetown would eventually cross the line first, in 10 minutes, 51.49 seconds, the fifth-best time in meet history. Tennessee, the two-time defending champion, had to settle for second, a little over 5 seconds behind.
Villanova, which was trying to win a race it once owned here for the first time since 2006, came in next-to-last.
"It was just one of those days where everything that could possibly go wrong did," said coach Gina Procaccio. "Emily [3:27.18] was 7 seconds off her best, and that pretty much put us out of it, regardless of what happened with the baton. It would have been really tough to win, being down [that much]. I knew Georgetown was pretty tough, so we kind of had to be with them leg for leg. The dropped baton made it impossible then.
"I mean, it happens. Move on. She's a freshman. Maybe she got a little rattled with the whole thing. That's all I can say. It wasn't her running. But she's got 3 more years. I'm thrilled that all four of them are back next year, so we will have another shot. I just know with freshmen sometimes you never know. It can go either way. But she's tough. She'll be back . . .
"When it's that bad, you just laugh. What [else] are you going to do? Wasn't meant to be today. I feel bad for [anchor Sheila Reid]. She wants [a win at Penn] so bad."
Because she's accomplished just about everything else, including being part of the last two national titles in cross country and taking last year's individual crown.
"This just didn't fall into place for me," Lipari explained. "There was nothing I could do about it. You have good days and you have bad days. I've learned that if you have a bad race you don't dwell on it, and if you have a good one you don't celebrate [too much]."
The Wildcats will try again in today's 4x1,500. But this moment belonged to their Big East rivals, whose only previous DMR win here occured in 1996. In the indoor nationals, neither leadoff runner Renee Tomlin (out of eligibility) or anchor Emily Infeld (redshirt) had lined up but the Hoyas still competed. It makes a difference.
Running in a light rain, Tomlin (3:19.81), Amanda Kimbers (54.54) and Chelsea Cox (2:05.58) put Infeld (4:31.56) in position. And Infeld pulled away from Tennessee's Brittany Sheffey and Virginia's Stephanie Garcia on the last lap to make it look comfortable.
Tomlin and Cox both are South Jersey shore products.
"This is something we've been talking about," said Hoyas distance coach Chris Miltenberg. "We've had a bunch of close ones. We were kind of joking last week that nobody was talking about us, that maybe we could surprise a lot of people."
But he understands how Procaccio feels, too.
"Since I've been here, they've done nothing but beat us," he said. "They made us better. They pushed us. I'd like to think we make them better, too. They'll be back."
Maybe so will the Hoyas.