Near the midway point of the women's distance medley relay college championship at the 123rd running of the Penn Relays on Thursday, it probably looked to some like it was anybody's race with five schools bunched together.
What a silly thought.
As is its habit, Villanova took control of the DMR and sped to its 15th all-time championship in one of the marquee events of the famed three-day meet at Franklin Field.
The Wildcats clocked in at 10:53.97 — the eighth-best time in Penn Relays history.
"What can I say? All I have to do is pretty much get them to the starting line," head coach Gina Procaccio said. "These girls know what the tradition is all about with Villanova in the Penn Relays. We definitely wanted this DMR."
After strong opening legs in the 1200 from sophomore Nicole Hutchinson (3:21.39) and the 400 from freshman McKenna Keegan (54.05), junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner broke away from the pack right in front of Villanova's cheering section, handing the baton to anchor Angel Piccirillo with a comfortable lead.
Buttner ran her 800 leg in 2:05.78 before Piccirillo ran the closing mile in 4:32.76 as Villanova fended off serious challenges from Penn State and Notre Dame, which finished in second and third, respectively.
"She's got amazing turnover to go from 0 to 60," Procaccio said of Cleirigh Buttner. "I've never had an athlete that's able to accelerate the way she does."
The Villanova coach admitted the third leg seemed a little slow at first as Columbia and Indiana joined Villanova, Penn State and Notre Dame in the lead pack. Buttner thought the same thing as she was running — and then decided to do something about it.
"I was trying to wait a little longer," the junior said. "I just thought it was just too slow. And right before 300, my legs just wanted to go."
Although Notre Dame and Penn State never went away, opening up the kind of lead she did for Piccirillo essentially ended the race. One of the most accomplished runners in the program's illustrious history, Piccirillo tied a Penn Relays record with her seventh women's championship, sharing it with fellow Villanovans Michelle Bennett and Kathy Franey.
She could own the record all to herself before her final Penn Relays ends as Villanova will compete for championships in the 4x1500 Friday and the 4x800 on Saturday.
"Down the line, Nicole, McKenna, Siofra were all running so fast, everyone's splits were on," Piccirillo said. "I saw that and it was getting me excited. I was like, 'They're all gonna go and I'm gonna go and we're gonna win it no matter what.' Then to see Siofra open up a gap, I was like, 'Even better, we're gonna make it decisive.'"
Anchoring the winning DMR was particularly gratifying for Piccirillo, who missed last year's meet because she redshirted with plantar fasciitis. That decision wasn't an easy one but Procaccio said she was "glad it paid off" with Piccirillo returning in top form and helping 'Nova avenge a loss to Georgetown in last year's DMR — a race that snapped Villanova's four-year winning streak in the event.
"I've been waiting for this weekend since probably November," said Piccirillo, who attended last year's Penn Relays as a fan and was "screaming my head off" during the Wildcats' win in the 4x1500. "I've been ready to go. It's just a great feeling to be back here for one last win with these girls."
Piccirillo will have a couple more days to enjoy the Penn Relays as the meet concludes with a full slate of events Friday and Saturday. But nothing beats winning the DMR — consistently one of the most exciting events at the country's oldest and largest track meet.
"Everyone knows the tradition," Procaccio said. "The DMR is the most prestigious relay, to be able to get four different disciplines in one relay. And Villanova is kind of synonymous with the DMR."
Penn also had a strong showing in Thursday's DMR, finishing in sixth place with a time of 11:15.76. Earlier in the day, the host Quakers set a school record in a 4x100 relay heat with a time of 45.21 seconds to advance to Friday's final.