Villanova's Emily Lipari and Stanford's Aisling Cuffe are familiar rivals going back to their high school days in New York state, and there they were again on Thursday, dueling down the stretch of the Penn Relays women's distance medley relay.
With 200 meters left, it appeared as if Cuffe had opened up enough ground on Lipari to hold on, but the Wildcats senior had a different plan. Summoning strength and speed from somewhere deep inside, Lipari passed Cuffe with less than 50 meters to go and pulled out the victory for Villanova on a sunny and windy day at Franklin Field.
The Wildcats, winners of the women's DMR for the third straight year and for the 11th time in carnival history, crossed the line in 10 minutes, 57.35 seconds with a team of Stephanie Schappert (1,200 meters), Michaela Watkins (400), Nicky Akande (800), and Lipari (1,600).
Stanford was timed in 10:57.64, and the Cardinal were followed by Georgetown and Dartmouth.
Racing in front of a crowd of 21,422, Villanova was staring at a 20-meter deficit after the second leg, but Akande's time of 2:04.51 picked up 10 meters on first place and gave Lipari a chance, even though she was in fourth place at the last handoff of the baton.
Lipari, a senior from Greenvale, N.Y., who ran the leadoff leg on the Wildcats' winning 2012 DMR team and anchor last year, quickly moved into second, and the duel was on. She and Cuffe, a junior from Cornwell-on-Hudson, N.Y., were a close 1-2 heading into the final lap.
"I did feel pretty relaxed going into that last 400 meters," said Lipari, the NCAA indoor champion in the mile. "I think sometimes I just mistakenly fall asleep. But we are hungry, and the girls that ran before me were out there being really tough and for me not to give that some toughness would have been such a shame, because everybody else did before me.
"I've raced Cuffe a lot in high school. I know she's got incredible range. She got me in NCAA cross[-country] this year, so I was kind of hungry for this one."
Cuffe opened up about a five-meter lead on the backstretch and looked strong entering the final turn. But Lipari's teammates; her coach, Gina Procaccio; and even Cuffe knew she had a strong finishing kick.
"Aisling is a phenomenal runner, a great, great distance runner in the 3K," Procaccio said. "She can run a solid mile. She's tough. She's out there pushing the pace in the wind. I know Emily has the kick, no matter who she's against. [Cuffe] opened up a little bit, but I was still pretty confident that Emily could catch her."
The kick worked. Lipari closed ground entering the final straightaway and powered past her rival, crossed the finish line with both arms in the air, and was mobbed by her ecstatic teammates. She was timed in 4:33.44.
"We've been racing each other for about five or six years now, and we both know each of our strong points in the race," Lipari said. "I know Cuffe can push a pace and she can hold pace. . . . She is super strong and she's tough. She knows that I have the kick."
The DMR was the only Championship of America final Thursday, but women's heats were conducted in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.
Seeking its sixth consecutive victory in the 4x100, Texas A&M led qualifying with a time of 44.09 seconds. Texas clocked 3:31.93 seconds to top the standings in the 4x400 and set up a rematch of its battle against Oregon in last month's NCAA indoor championships.
The Ducks, who edged the Longhorns by two-hundredths of a second in the NCAAs, were second-fastest in 3:34.49.