J.J. Clark, women's track and field coach at Tennessee, has been spending the last weekend in April at the Penn Relays since he was a sixth-grader. So he knows all about the traditions, particularly when it comes to Villanova, where he ran from 1982-86.
"I know what this means [to the Wildcats]," he said yesterday afternoon. "This is serious business. You have to come here ready to run. We understand the importance of that."
A year ago, the Wildcats won the distance medley relay for the first time in nearly a decade. They weren't supposed to repeat, even though they had three of their four runners back. That's because Marina Muncan, anchor supreme, wasn't. Still, with 500 meters left in the closing 1,600-meter leg, sophomore Frances Koons, who'd already made up a 15-meter deficit, went past Tennessee sophomore Sarah Bowman, who'd won the high school mile here in 2004 and '05. And Koons, who's as tough as they come, would remain a stride or two in front until they entered the final turn at Franklin Field.
Maybe Koons simply used up too much in making up such a gap so quickly. Who knows? She took her best shot. It just wasn't quite enough. Bowman still had a little more left. She edged past Koons with about 120 meters to go and crossed the finish line first with a time of 11 minutes, 09.16 seconds. Villanova was a little more than a second back at 11:10.19.
The Wildcats don't come to the Carnival to run second, even if it certainly was a respectable effort. But coming so close probably just makes it sting a bit more.
"It was such a great feat last year, to be part of the [legacy]," Koons said. "That didn't make this one mean any more or less. We just fought like true Wildcats. We gave it all we could. We'll be back.
"Coach [Gina Procaccio] always tells us to prepare for anything. I kind of expected to be right there. I felt good. That last 100 meters, I can't explain it. I knew [Bowman] was right on me. It just wasn't in my legs. I was fighting, but I couldn't make them go any faster."
She came home in 4:37 flat. Bowman's time was 4:41.4. North Carolina's Brie Feinague ran a 4:33.1 to get the Tar Heels - who won the NCAA indoor DMR - third.
Tennessee, which finished runner-up in that race, got a 3:26.0 from freshman Rose-Anne Galligan in the opening 1,200 meters. Latonya Loche then covered the 400 meters in 52.9, and Leslie Treherne followed with a 2:08.9 for the 800 leg.
"You can't be concerned about what other teams are going to do," Clark explained. "I wanted them to run with confidence. You could see it in every leg."
Akilah Vargas got Villanova going with a 3:26.6. Tiera Fletcher turned in a 54.3 that kept the 'Cats within striking distance, and Arusha McKenzie did likewise with a 2:12.3.
The reality is, they did everything possible. The Vols were a smidge better. But a smidge is all it takes.
"All our runners went for it," said Procaccio, who was a teammate of Clark's. "Our goal was to compete, and see what happens. What more could I ask for?"
It was Tennessee's third DMR victory at Penn. The first came in 1984, the second 3 years ago.
"Gina's got me before," Clark said. "Now and then I get a chance to hit her back, too. That's the way it goes in this profession."
And, as it often does in this sport, it came down to who could outkick whom.
"Sometimes, when you're in the lead, you don't realize how fast you need to go because you don't have anyone pushing you," Bowman said. "I knew who was behind me. And I know she's a good runner. I was ready in case she did what she did. You have to mentally prepare yourself for whatever. In races like this, you never know what's going to happen.
"I knew she was coming. I heard the whole Villanova cheering [section]. I kind of let her take [the lead]. Then I went with her. The pace really didn't feel bad. I just needed to keep telling myself, 'Go with her, go with her.' It definitely helped [having Koons running in front of her]."
Last year the Volunteers didn't even enter this event because one of their runners was injured.
"We had to sit there and watch," Bowman remembered. "So this was definitely something we wanted to do. But there's so many great teams out there. You can't really concentrate on one.
"In high school, this was an individual [meet] for me. But to win here as a team is an amazing feeling. To run with such great athletes. We work together to push each other."
Villanova did some pushing of its own. Which can only make the feelings run that much deeper. Right, J.J.?