They thundered into the bell lap of the collegiate mens distance medley relay Friday at the Penn Relays -- Princetons Donn Cabral in the lead, with no fewer than 12 other runners right on his tail.
Thats right -- 12.
To him, though, the pack wasnt as large as it looked to everyone else in Franklin Field.
It wasnt 13 people, he said. To me it was two people. It was me and whoever tried to pass me.
There were those who tried, but no one could.
He fought off every last one of them to win, if barely: The top six teams all finished within a fraction of a second of one another. The sixth of those was Villanova, which always seems to win this event at the Relays; the Wildcats have taken it no fewer than 24 times, including last year.
As for the Tigers, they had never won it before Friday. Not once. But they finished in 9:42.45, ahead of Indiana (9:42.68), Binghamton (9:43.08), Oregon (9:43.11), Columbia (9:43.21) and the Wildcats (9:43.28).
It feels pretty unreal, said Michael Williams, who ran the third leg -- i.e., the 800 meters. This is about as good as it gets for track.
Coach Steve Dolan called his runners a special group, but Tom Hopkins, a Haverford native who ran the second leg (the 400) was aware of the doubts hovering around them -- despite the fact that Cabral had been part of a victorious 4xMile relay team last year at this carnival.
This is Princeton, after all, where they are known athletically for the backdoor, not the back stretch.
Hopkins was, however, heartened when he saw Joe Stilin accelerate to the front of the pack in the latter stages of the lead leg, the 1,200.
As Stilin said, I jumped the field. I think I surprised the field a little bit.
Hopkins, awaiting the baton, took note.
Theres always been that little thing in the back of my mind, that maybe were not that good, he said. When I saw Joe kick and systematically take over the race, I knew we could do it.
Princeton was either first or second the rest of the way. And Villanova fell to fifth after the 400 -- run by Bryan Murphy for the Wildcats -- and seventh during the first lap of the 800. Then Upper Dublin High graduate Sam Ellison made up considerable ground late in the 800, setting the stage for the 1,600.
And for Cabral.
I trust in Donn; I know hes a warrior on the track, Hopkins said.
Villanova anchor Sam McEntee knew that, too. Only recently he had lost to Cabral in the 1,500 at Princetons Larry Ellis Invitational. It was the same kind of race, too -- with Cabral taking the lead and fending off all challengers.
Hes really a strong runner, said McEntee, who nonetheless said he thought Indianas Andre Bayer might overtake Cabral.
But he did not. Nobody did. And that was at least a small surprise to Cabral; in the final straightaway, he said, It didnt feel like my legs were going that fast.
They were going fast enough. Just fast enough, as it turned out.
I was going berserk, Williams said.
So too was Cabral, who allowed himself a celebratory fist pump after crossing the finish line.
Then there was Wildcats coach Marcus OSullivan.
Im obviously disappointed, he said. Thats pure entertainment, as good as it gets. But I wish we were there at the end. You know what they say: Leave it go that late in the race, and its a crapshoot.
A crapshoot that went Cabrals way.
Cat clipped in womens relay
The collegiate womens 4x1,500 relay came down to two longtime rivals -- Villanovas Sheila Reid and Georgetowns Emily Infeld -- battling it out down the home stretch.
Battling it out for second place.
The Oregon team of Laine Thompson, Alex Kosinski, Anne Kesselring and Becca Friday blew away the field to give the Ducks their first womens title ever at the Relays, in 17:29.0.
So Reid and Infeld, two seniors who have been squaring off for four years, were left to their own race within a race. Infeld stayed on Reids shoulder throughout their leg, and outkicked her.
Georgetowns time was 17:40.99, while the Wildcats team of Bogdana Mimic, Emily Lipari, Nicky Akande and Reid came in at 17:41.12. And after crossing the finish line, Reid spiked the baton on the infield in disgust.
I just kind of wanted to wash my hands of the race, she said. We had come off the high of last night when Villanova won the distance medley relay, and you come here and you want to be competitive. All of us have to run with more heart than that.
She went on to call the race a huge disappointment, and the Wildcats overall showing bittersweet.
It would be great if it ended with a win -- if you flipped the days, she said. I feel I could have come out of here with two wheels. Im coming out with just one.
Kosinski and Kesselring ran strong legs to put some distance between the Ducks and the rest of the field, and Friday brought it home.
I saw we had a pretty big lead, but I didnt want to take any chances, Friday said. The main goal for me was to finish the last 200 meters strong.
It takes four people to get the job done, Kesselring said. We have four strong people. We dont have any weak links. Thats what we wanted to capitalize on.
Villanova coach Gina Procaccio thought beforehand that the Wildcats could be competitive with the Ducks, but it was not to be.
Im disappointed, she said, but at least were walking away this year with a win.
In time, there might be some consolation in that. But not Friday night.
Its disappointing, Reid said. I dont like losing to anybody. Emilys a great runner. She just had a little bit more at the end.
What do the Penn Relays mean to the elite competitors, who will be in action Saturday?
It is, said U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, like our NBA All-Star Weekend.
Especially in an Olympic year. The Games will be held in London this summer.
Its a sneak preview of the relays, said another U.S. sprinter, Walter Dix. It definitely gives the fans what they want to see. It gives them a little taste before we get to the Games.
But no matter the year, the event has a special flavor.
I love the crowd, said U.S. womens sprinter Carmelita Jeter. Thats the best part of the Penn Relays, to me.
One of the things on display Saturday will be the longstanding rivalry between the United States and Jamaica -- a healthy rivalry, in the estimation of Jamaican sprinter Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, the reigning Olympic champ in the 100 meters.
Ive never heard a Jamaican say anything bad about a U.S. athlete, she said, and vice versa.
Jeter found that to be true herself, on those occasions when she has trained in Jamaica.
I never thought Id be accepted or received the way I am, she said. Its amazing.
Gordie Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in the Philadelphia market for 28 years. He also co-authored a book about the 76ers' 1982-83 championship team with former Sixers general manager Pat Williams.