FOR THE SECOND straight afternoon, a Championship of America race at the Penn Relays came down to Villanova and Arkansas. Or, more to the point, Wildcats senior Emily Lipari and Cardinal junior Aisling Cuffe, who've competed against each other since high school.
On Thursday, it was the closing 1,600 meters of the Distance Medley Relay. This time, it was the final leg of the 4 x 1,500 meters. Once again, Cuffe held the lead moving into the final turn. But once more, Lipari had a little extra when it counted most. She finally went in front 25 meters before the finish line to give the Wildcats their first victory in the event since 2000.
"This one was pretty special, because [it had been so long]," Villanova coach Gina Procaccio said. "We're known as being middle-distance runners, so for us not to win in that many years kind of bothered me a bit. The girls understood that. They all know what Villanova's about. They just went out and did their job, leg to leg."
It's the first time the Wildcats have taken both the DMR and 4 x 1,500 since 1997. That was also the last time they got the triple by adding the 4 x 800, which they won last year for the first time since '97 when Lipari came from behind to catch Oregon's Laura Roesler on the last stride.
This is the first time since 1994-95 that they've won at least twice in consecutive Aprils. That was also the last time they'd repeated in the DMR. Today, they'll try to go back-to-back in the 4 x 800 for the first time in 23 years.
The Wildcats have swept three races at Penn four times, the last time in '97.
"Tomorrow's going to be fun," Procaccio insisted. "We have nothing to lose. We've aleady got two. We'll leave happy, no matter what."
Still, you know they'd relish another victory lap around Franklin Field. Kelsey Margey, who started things off in last year's 4 x 800, will move into the lineup. She replaces Stephanie Schappert, who led off yesterday after running the opening 1,200-meter DMR leg.
Schappert's time was 4 minutes, 22.3 seconds. That was followed by Angel Piccirillo's 4:17.4, then a 4:20.4 from Nicky Akande. Lipari, content to sit behind Cuffe until the end, ran a 4:16.4. That was good for a 17.16.52, or .18 better than Stanford, which got a 4:16.6 from its anchor.
Dartmouth (17:20.87) got third, thanks mostly to closer Abbey D'Agostino (4:08 flat).
"Everybody's in the hurt box and wants to do this for each other," Lipari said. "You just get a lot of support and you hear everybody in the stands, every corner screaming for Villanova, and you know all these girls are running. You want to be on all these wins together, and to be part of it is something you really can't put into words.
"Nicky gave me the baton exactly where I like to have it, where I can just kind of watch what's going on. She knows me better than I know myself. That's where I feel most comfortable. I had no idea what [Cuffe] was going to do, honestly. I was kind of getting ready for whatever she was going to throw at me. I had to go in it with an open mind and expect it from any angle."
Did she ever think maybe she wouldn't quite get there?
"You can't have those [negative] thoughts in your head, because it's just not fair to think like that," Lipari explained. "These girls put everything on the line, so I can't afford to think like that when they worked their butts off. So I'm just going to give it up, [too]. I had to believe the whole way. I heard Angel screaming at me on the [last] turn, 'How bad do you want it?' I was like, 'I want this pretty bad.' "
And that's how you renew a tradition.
"Being part of a winning team at Penn [Relays] is one of the reasons we came here," Schappert duly noted.
Added Akande: "I knew if I was at least close to being right there, [Lipari] wouldn't give an inch. She'd be fine."
Why change the script now?