It was Villanova senior Stephanie Schappert's first time on the anchor leg, her first time running the 1,600 meters at the end of the distance-medley relay at the Penn Relays.

She ran 1,610.

"I didn't even know where the finish line was," Schappert said. "I wasn't going to stop. I just kept going."

Schappert's ignorance was bliss in another way, too. She also was happily unaware that teammates Michaela Wilkins and Siofra Cleirigh Buttner bobbled their handoff between the 400-meter and 800-meter legs, nearly re-creating the disaster that disqualified the Wildcats in the distance-medley relay at the NCAA indoor championships in March in Fayetteville, Ark.

"I didn't realize that happened," Schappert said. "I had no idea."

It was a cold, windy day of discovery for Schappert at the 121st running of the world's oldest and largest track and field carnival.

She knew she was a strong runner and so did everybody else. The product of Pope John Paul II High in Delray Beach, Fla., and daughter of former Villanova runner Ken Schappert has made steady improvement during the course of her collegiate career.

She was a key member of two of the Wildcats' three winning teams during last year's Penn Relays.

But there's being a member of a relay team and there's being an anchor of a relay team. There's a big difference.

The people who figured Villanova was a bit of an underdog in Friday's featured event in Franklin Field - and there were a legion of them out there - based their pick on the absence of graduated Wildcats star Emily Lipari, the heroic anchor of last year's trifecta of relay victories.

"That fueled us," Villanova coach Gina Procaccio said of speculation that the smart money in the DMR was on a loaded Stanford squad.

But Procaccio also admitted that "losing Emily was huge" and that another Villanova runner would need to assume the responsibility and handle the pressure of the anchor leg.

Enter Schappert.

"It was her turn," Procaccio said. "She understands what it means to be a Villanovan. . . . I told her, 'I know you can do this.' "

Schappert said she is used to running the first leg on relays and spending the rest of the race cheering on her teammates.

"This was completely different," Schappert said.

Her wait probably seemed interminable, as Angel Piccirillo got the Wildcats off to a blazing start with a 3-minute, 23.35-second split in the 1,200-meter leg and the lead slowly narrowed during the next two legs.

Plus, it was cold.

"I was freezing," Schappert said.

Her first anchor leg at the Penn Relays didn't lack for drama. She was passed at one point by Stanford's Elise Cranny and North Carolina's Annie LeHardy.

"It was hard to judge the pace I was going because it was windy," Schappert said.

Strategy always is a factor in relay races, from the coaches' decisions on the order of runners to the athletes' gauge of pace and the timing of their kicks.

Ultimately, though, those last 200 meters becomes about something else.

"Seeing Angel open up that huge lead and seeing Michaela and Siofra fight to hold it up, I was like, 'You're going to have to kill me before I give up this win,' " Schappert said.

She made her move with about 150 meters to go, passing Cranny and gradually pulling away to secure the Wildcats' fourth straight victory in the event.

She crossed the finish line in the clear - and raced another 10 meters for good measure before collapsing into the arms of her celebrating teammates.

"She came through like a champ," Procaccio said.

@PhilAnastasia

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