"We see all the great names on the wall [at school], every day. They've got Penn Relay champions, and national champions. It's kind of funny to have one without the other...It would be great to put our names right up there in Villanova history."
— Wildcats' fifth-year senior Sheila Reid, before the 2011 Penn Relays
SO WHEN DOES a void become a burden?
Because 12 months later, nothing has changed. And at this point, fun probably has little to do with that quest.
Reid, who could be competing for Canada in this summer's Olympic Games, will leave the Main Line as one of the school's most accomplished runners. Which puts her in rarefied company.
She's on a short list of those who've won back-to-back individual cross-country titles, while helping the Wildcats take consecutive team crowns. At last June's NCAA outdoor championships she became the first woman to win the 1,500 and 5,000 meters in the same year. Last week she broke Sonia O'Sullivan's 22-year-old school record in the outdoor 5,000. One of three finalists for the 2011 Honda Award that goes to the nation's top female athlete, she twice has been honored by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association as its top amateur.
She's never taken a victory lap at Franklin Field.
"Any superstar that comes through here is expected to do that," said Villanova coach Gina Procaccio, who got to experience such a moment in West Philly back in her heyday. "It's something you can really share with your teammates. She's proven herself individually. But if you ask her about her high points here, she'd tell you about the team titles. You can do that at Penn. I just want her to know what it feels like.
"Even [Olympian] Carrie Tollefson only had one [there]. I know [Reid] thinks about it. It doesn't have to be said."
Whatever the remainder of her career holds, this is Reid's last Carnival. She once again will run the closing 1,600-meter leg in Thursday's Distance Medley Relay and anchor Friday's 4 x 1,500. She also could anchor Saturday's 4 x 800 meters, an event Villanova hasn't even entered since she's been here.
"I think it would relieve some of the pressure if we could get it done the first day," Reid acknowledged. "But I'll take any day. I'd be thrilled with one, and not get greedy, but ... it is kind of this thing hanging over me."
The Wildcats have won the DMR a record nine times, four more than anybody else. Yet they haven't done it since 2006. They've won a meet-best eight 4 x 1,500s. Again, nobody's close. But their most recent victory was a dozen years ago. They also have a record nine 4 x 800 titles. The last, though, came in 1997.
Competitively, times have changed. The expectations, not so much.
"I like our chances, but I like our chances every year," Reid said. "It's not daunting, but there's just something about it that's elusive. It's always been a special place for Villanova. I'll never not be in awe of the people that have come before me. It's just something we want to win so badly, for each other and the program. [It's] home turf.
"I think our whole team puts a lot of pressure on itself, especially last year. We came in planning to do big things and it didn't turn out the way we wanted. But we're going to approach it the same way. We're not giving ourselves a way out of it."
Last April they were coming off a DMR win at the NCAA Indoor nationals, where they broke a program record that had stood since 1988. At Penn they got a "sluggish" leadoff 1,200 from freshman Emily Lipari, who as it turns out was not fully healthy. Then Christie Verdier got hit on the 400 leg and dropped the baton. Game over.
They have the same group back (Nicky Akande will run the 800). Reid, who redshirted the outdoor season as a freshman, didn't run in the recently completed indoor campaign because she'd used up her eligibility. Defending champ Georgetown, Oregon and 2009-10 winner Tennessee figure to be significant factors.
"It was like watching a car accident," Reid recalled. "I couldn't look away. I knew the girls were hurting."
The reality is, relays are a joint effort. Many of Villanova's greats have anchored victories that were basically already history when they got the baton. The details aren't noted when they list the winners in the record books. Procaccio only hopes Reid is within a stride or so of the lead when it's time to do her thing.
"I think she's the best anchor in the field," Procaccio explained. "I think she'd be OK."
Maybe we'll finally get a chance to find out.
"I'll take a win any way I can," Reid said. "A comfortable buffer would be nice. If I screwed that up I'd have to readjust some training.
"It hurts more when you're trying to do something for a team than just yourself. It affects other people. That's why I love the Penn Relays. Running for times is different than racing. I've always said it takes a certain degree of magic to win at Penn, because how often do four girls feel absolutely brilliant on the same day? You need that lightning to strike.
"I don't really get a lot of interview requests until the Penn Relays. I don't get sick of it. I understand how important it is, and not just to the girls on the team. A lot of people want to see us win."
So, has she ever allowed herself to contemplate what it could be?
"I've got to run four laps, after my teammates run a bunch of laps, before we can all [celebrate] together," she said. "If it did happen, it would rank pretty high. But we've had teams we thought could win before and didn't. You don't want to jinx yourself. One little thing could go wrong.
"While they're running, I'm definitely excited and anxious, just kind of waiting for my turn. I can't imagine what they're feeling when they're done and they're watching me.
"We're coming in a little bit smarter, a little bit fitter. Everyone seems to be kind of on the upswing, as opposed to kind of beaten up. This time I'm really going to try and enjoy it."
The wall wouldn't want it any other way. n
Contact Mike Kern at firstname.lastname@example.org