It took less than a minute for Villanova women’s track coach Gina Procaccio to mention Sheila Reid’s name during last week’s press conference to preview the 119th running of the Penn Relays.
“This is kind of the post-Sheila-Reid era,” Procaccio said, referring to the star runner who graduated last year, shortly after leading the Wildcats to a Penn Relays title in the coveted distance medley relay.
But, the ’Nova coach quickly added, that doesn’t mean Villanova won’t again be a force when the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States kicks off in full Thursday at Franklin Field.
The ’Nova women will compete in three Championship of America relays against some of the country’s premier track programs: the distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:25 p.m.) the 4x1500 (Friday, 1:10 p.m.) and the 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.)
“I feel like all three of our distance relays are going to be competitive,” Procaccio said. “We should be up there fighting for the win in all three.”
Much of the reason for Procaccio’s confidence stems from the emergence of freshman Angel Piccirillo, who is helping to ease the void left behind by Reid.
Piccirillo will likely run in all three relays, along with juniors Emily Lipari and Nicky Akande. And the freshman has experience on the grand stage of the Penn Relays, having won two Championship of America races in the mile while in high school.
“In the Penn Relays, if you’ve never run it, it can be daunting,” Procaccio said. “But for her, she’s been here and she’s won. She’s definitely not afraid.”
The Villanova men’s runners won’t be afraid, either. And like Procaccio, Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan believes his team is in good position to fare well in three Championship of America relays: the DMR (Friday, 2:25 p.m.), the 4xmile (Saturday, 12:45 p.m.) and the 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.).
“This year, for my first time in my tenure as coach, we should be able to be competitive in all three because of our depth,” said O’Sullivan, who’s in his 10th year at the helm. “That’s exciting for me.”
One runner to keep an eye on is junior Sam Ellison, who will compete in the DMR and the 4x800 for the ’Cats. O’Sullivan used the words “top-notch” and “first-class” to describe Ellison. And considering he’s a local kid that went to nearby Upper Dublin High School, he’ll likely have a sizable cheering contingent.
Of course, there’s nothing more local than Penn’s presence at the Relays. And even though the Quakers aren’t at the same level as Big 5 rival Villanova in terms of distance relays, they’ll have some strong entries, especially in the field events.
That starts with junior Maalik Reynolds, who won the Penn Relays high jump title two years ago and is looking to snap out of a slump that’s plagued him for much of this season.
“We’re waiting for the breakthrough with Maalik,” said Steve Dolan, Penn’s director of track and field. “Maybe Penn will be the place at home to make the breakthrough.”
Also for the Quakers, discus thrower Sam Mattis will look to follow in Reynolds’ footsteps and capture a Penn Relays watch as a freshman. Mattis won the last three Penn Relays discus championships while at East Brunswick (N.J.) High and, according to Penn men’s track Robin Martin, he could become the first to win back-to-back titles from high school into college.
“He’s one of those guys that has a talent,” Martin said. “You can’t bet against him.”
On a personal level, both Dolan and Martin are excited to show off their home track for such a prestigious event that usually draws over 100,000 people during the course of three days, as well as many past Olympians for Saturday's nationally televised USA vs. the World races.
For Dolan, this will be his 21st time at the Penn Relays but his first while at Penn. He previously coached at Princeton and The College of New Jersey.
“The thing that makes this event so amazing is it encompasses all areas of track and field,” Dolan said. “There are youth races, high school races, collegiate races, masters evens, all field events – every part of track and field. And to see the staff put this together and everything that’s involved to make this the experience that it is, it’s unbelievable.”
For Martin, a former Penn track star, Penn Relays has always been his favorite week of the year.
“Track and field has faded in popularity a little bit but Penn Relays has never really faltered,” he said. “It’s a magical weekend and I’m really excited for all of our athletes to be a part of it.”