SOMETIMES, YOU'RE never quite sure exactly what might go down at the Penn Relays.
Villanova's women were the favorites in Thursday's Distance Medley Relay, but were out of the race by the beginning of the second leg. And in yesterday's 4x1,500 meters, Nova anchor Sheila Reid got the baton with a little too much ground to make up. She still almost pulled it off, but had to watch Boston College's Caitlin Bailey outkick both her and Georgetown's Emily Infeld in the stretch to give the Eagles' women their first Carnival win, and first for the school since 1975.
It was awesome stuff. It was about to get even better.
A few hours later, the Wildcat men lined up for the DMR with minimal expectations. An injury earlier this week forced coach Marcus O'Sullivan to alter his lineup. And anchor Matthew Gibney was hampered by lower-back issues in the indoor season, which limited his normal workout routine.
So naturally, after Brian Tetreault, Carlton Bowers and Samuel Ellison did their best to put Gibney in position to at least do something, he outkicked what seemed like half the field to give the Wildcats their second DMR victory in the last 3 years and 24th overall. That's nine more than anyone else. Gibney also anchored in 2009. But this was different.
"Two years ago, I felt a bit more pressure because we were the heavy favorite," the Australian acknowledged. "We hadn't done it in 8 years, so we were long overdue. This year, things weren't really working out for us, so this was just a wonderful surprise."
After a shaky start, Tetreault left Villanova in third place with a time of 2 minutes, 53.9 seconds in the opening 1,200 leg. Bowers, who didn't find out he was running the 400 until Monday, followed with a 46.89 that pushed the Wildcats into second behind Indiana. Ellison, who was originally supposed to run the 400, turned in a 1:51.03 in the 800 that gave his team a slim lead over Arkansas heading into the closing 1,600.
It became the kind of scrum that the crowd lives for. Almost everyone had a shot. Brigham Young, which just won the NCAA indoor title, was out in front with Miles Batty, its individual mile champion. But at least a half-dozen others had a shot. Gibney ran what O'Sullivan described as a "masterful" tactical race, and finally made his move at the top of the closing straightaway. He had just enough to beat out Dorian Ulrey, of Arkansas. BYU, which was trying to win a men's event here for the first time since 1917, was third.
Gibney came home in 4:02.16. Villanova ran a 9:37.93, a half-second better than the Hogs. The last time that a time that slow captured this event was 1973, when the Wildcats were first in 9:43.6. But it doesn't matter. The only thing anyone remembers is who gets to take that victory lap.
"I knew it was going to be competitive," O'Sullivan said. "The way they handled the race was great. I really can't tell you how proud I am of these guys. They're all local guys, except for the Aussie at the end. They all ran from their heart.
"I wasn't sure what to expect. There was a point where I kind of realized [Gibney] had so much more left. I will relish this one the rest of my life. It was just phenomenal for me to watch it, as a coach and a spectator. To me, it's as good as it gets."
Maybe all of those "Go Nova" chants coming from the Franklin Field stands really do make a difference. Or perhaps it has something to do with the ghost of Jumbo Elliott that still lurks there.
"Although we're not at Villanova, we feel home," Gibney said. "A slow race really played to my advantage. My strategy was to wait until the final 100 and give it all I had. I have different strengths but running in the front is not one of them. I was trying to figure out how other people were feeling and what other people were doing."
What they were doing at the end was watching him lift his arms in triumph. Who knew?
"During Brian's leg another anchor said to me, 'Every damn year it's UPenn, but it feels like your meet,' " Gibney noted. "I won't say who, [but] not only does it encourage us, it also somewhat gets to the other teams."