Emily Lipari admits that her journey from high school star to NCAA champion for Villanova has included its share of rough patches, but the road has been smoother since her spectacular achievements at last year's Penn Relays.
Lipari anchored the Wildcats to a pair of Championship of America titles in the distance medley and 4x800-meter relays, leading her team to a collegiate record in the latter race. In the fall, she finished fifth in the NCAA cross-country championships, and she capped her indoor season last month by capturing the women's mile in the NCAA track and field meet.
The senior from Greenvale, N.Y., will end her Penn Relays career as a Wildcat this week looking to carry the baton first across the line once again. After a special year, she enters Franklin Field as one of the best middle-distance runners in the country.
"Last year was so exciting because the Penn Relays race was really a big breakthrough for me and gave me the confidence that I needed to transform to the runner I am now," Lipari said Monday. "The individual title I won indoors was also a huge stepping-stone for me.
"My years at Villanova have been good, but there's also been some bumps along the road. Finishing that race and finally winning an NCAA title, it was a very emotional experience, not just because of the win but because of the journey. You reach that point and you just feel so humbled by those experiences."
Lipari said the relay wins had special meaning because of the team aspect.
"You can do individual things all throughout your life, but being part of a team is something you won't get to do forever," she said.
Villanova women's track and field coach Gina Procaccio appreciates Lipari's range; Lipari ran a career-best anchor leg of 2 minutes, 2.25 seconds in leading the Wildcats to last year's 4x800 crown at the carnival. About seven months later, she covered the NCAA championship cross-country course of about 5,900 meters in 20:10.8.
"Emily likes to win," Procaccio said. "You put her in a position to win and she'll get it done. That's her M.O."
Lipari didn't get off to a great start in her Penn Relays career. Running the 1,200-meter opening leg of the distance medley as a freshman in 2011, she was bumped off stride and couldn't recover. She came back on the same leg the next year and aided the Wildcats' victory, but she didn't qualify for the NCAA outdoor championships.
"I had to watch nationals through my computer," she said, "and I think that was a big turning point for me. I went home that summer. I worked hard but I worked smart. Hard work is great, but if your hard work is a 10, and your smart work is a zero, then you're going nowhere."
Lipari grew in experience, maturity, and strength during her junior year. She took no shortcuts in her training. She learned from each race and eventually put the pieces together to become the go-to runner for Villanova, and she will be the one to watch this week anchoring the distance medley, 4x1500, and 4x800 relays.
"If we all bring our 'A' games, I think we're going to have some good results," she said.