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Villanova fields strong teams as they head to Penn Relays

Men's squad confident of competing in prime events; women defending champs in DMR, 4x800 and mile relay.

Villanova's Emily Lipari (left) celebrates with  her teammates after crossing the finish line. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)
Villanova's Emily Lipari (left) celebrates with her teammates after crossing the finish line. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)Read more

FOR VILLANOVA, there can never be any excuses at the Penn Relays. That's just the way it is. Comes with all the tradition.

"It's always tough for us," Wildcats men's coach Marcus O'Sullivan said. "Other than us, everybody else can take a year off when they're not ready to race. We can't. That's one of the things we talk about a lot. Some years, when we're not ready, that's what we live with."

Fortunately for him, this is not one of those Aprils. He thinks his team is as deep as it's ever been in his 17 seasons. And that's coming from a guy who back in the day was part of a Villanova team that won the 4 x 800 meters with him as the weakest leg. Think about that. Still . . .

"That doesn't mean you're going to get it done," he cautioned.

The Wildcats won the 4 x 800 last year, for the first time since 1992, when they probably weren't supposed to. They won the Distance Medley Relay in 2011 and 2009. They haven't won the 4 x mile since 1993. But they expect to be a factor in all three, starting with Friday afternoon's DMR. They haven't won more than once at Penn since 1984, when they took the 4 x 800 and 4 x mile. This, from a program that holds the record for most 4 x 800 (20) and DMR (24) wins, and is second on the 4 x mile list with 18.

Another strong contender is Oregon, which has won the last two 4 x mile events (and three of the last five) and is the defending DMR champion (it also won in 2010). Penn State won the 4 x 800 in 2013 and '12, to go with a DMR victory 2 years ago. And there figure to be more contenders, just because there usually is.

"A bunch of our program is dedicated to this weekend," O'Sullivan said. "Not to disrespect the NCAAs or anything of that nature, since they have their own merits, as well. This is enormously important to us. So we come here with that intensity. I think our kids understand that it's a very unusual weekend for us. You hope and anticipate that they'll step it up.

"This is a meet that's defined me. This is where I learned to take responsibility, learned to be accountable. It's probably the only time we get a report card, as much as it's not good some years. It's important for us to understand the buck stops here. This is what you get judged on.

"I equate it to, the stress I had, to an Olympic Games. That's as high as it is for us."

So are the expectations any different this time, because they appear to be positioned better?

"Not necessarily," O'Sullivan said. "My job is to prepare them both emotionally and physically. You also have to be prepared for disappointment. They just need a stable rock to be able to hang on to. You have to keep everything in perspective, but, at the same time, realize it's very important. That's hard to do. It's a much finer line to negotiate.

"You can only control what you bring. Last year, we didn't have a 4 x 8 team until after the 4 x mile. They're kids. You've got to give your anchor a chance to be able to do something. That requires a whole team. But things happen. A whole host of things here. You don't really know. We have a lot to choose from. You need everyone to show up. When you have depth, you can afford mistakes. That's the difference. But you've got to make the right choices."

At last weekend's Larry Ellis Invitational at Princeton, a bunch of his runners had personal bests. Never a bad sign. Junior Jordy Williamsz, from Australia, is the obvious stud. But maybe not the only one. And they might need more than one.

On the women's side, coach Gina Procaccio has to replace Emily Lipari, who anchored three wins last year, their first triple since 1997. But junior Angel Piccirillo and senior Stephanie Schappert, both possible anchors, are back, as well as junior sprinter Michaela Wilkins. And they have a promising freshman in Ireland's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner.

The Wildcats have won the last three DMRs and last two 4 x 800s. The 4 x mile victory was their first since 2000.

"It's obviously going to be hard to top [last year], but I think we can be just as competitive, maybe not in all three," said Procaccio, a former Wildcats star who's being inducted into the Penn Relays Wall of Fame just after entering the Delaware County sports Hall. "We talked about the magic of Penn. Maybe on paper we're not the strongest team in any relay, but on paper last year, we weren't supposed to win the 4 x 8 and found a way to do it.

"We have a couple of other girls, and it's their turn. At Villanova, you have a couple of years to have somebody in front of you doing the job. We'll see if we can pull off some more magic."

Saturday's 4 x 8 and Thursday's DMR are probably their best opportunities.

"The whole thing at Penn is, it can be a little daunting if you've never done it before," Procaccio continued. "I think it takes a nice, cool, calm head to get it done. We're going to compete. Last year was a goal of mine, because I'd never done it . . . We're not going to be freaked out by the experience."

And maybe that's the hardest part of this battle.