Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Villanova is Penn's "Big Brother" at Penn Relays

Penn looks to return to relevance at Relays
Dave Zeitlan
April 25, 2012

Not very much was expected of the 4x400 relay team that Robin Martin (pictured, right) anchored at the 1997 Penn Relays, and the expectations weren’t exactly raised when Martin grabbed the baton for the anchor leg in fourth place in the IC4A championship race.

But with a burst of speed and adrenaline, Martin passed the three runners in front of him to lead Penn to a stunning and dramatic victory on their home track.

What happened next, the former Quaker middle-distance star and current Penn men’s track and field head coach remembers vividly.

“The crowd went bananas,” recalled Martin, a sophomore on that ’97 winning relay team. “The professional athletes that were there all came and jumped on us and were giving us hugs. People poured from the stands onto the track. It paused Penn Relays. It was crazy. That kind of thing really doesn’t happen.”

Martin – who took over for Penn’s longtime track coach Charlie Powell on an interim basis last December – hopes things like that happen more often for the host school in the country’s oldest and largest track and field competition. And he hopes they begin to happen this weekend at the 118th running of the historic Penn Relays, his first as head coach.

“You don’t hear Penn’s name on the loudspeaker at the Penn Relays,” said Martin, who was a two-time All-American during his career at Penn from 1996-2000. “We host it – but we’re usually just the hosts. The number of times that we’re really competitive is small.

“We’re not nationally competitive right now,” Penn’s new coach continued. “But the big part of our drive is to get there.”

The Quakers’ best chance at a championship this weekend will likely be in the men’s high jump, where Maalik Reynolds will defend his title Saturday afternoon. Last year, Reynolds jumped 7 feet, 3 ¼ inches to become the Quakers’ first Penn Relays high jump champion since 1955. And the sophomore continues to improve.

Martin believes the Quakers also will be competitive in the men’s distance medley relay, where they earned a spot in the top Championship of America heat. Last year, Villanova captured the national title in that race, traditionally one of the most exciting at the Penn Relays Carnival.

“This year we want to be in the mix,” Martin said. “This year, with 300 meters to go, my dream is to hear, “It’s Villanova, Oregon … and Penn! That would be incredible.”

Martin knows, however, there’s a lot of work to do to catch Villanova, which is home to some of the nation’s premier distance runners.

“I don’t know the last time we’ve beaten them, so it’s hard to call them a rival,” the Penn men’s track coach said. “They’re big brother right now. But we’re looking to change that.”

On top of going for their second straight (see photo of 2011 winners, left) – and 25th overall – men’s DMR Championship of America title Friday afternoon, Villanova will also be a part of many other distance relay events, including Thursday’s women’s DMR.

Last year, the Wildcats fizzled out in that race, finishing in 13th place after many thought they’d shatter the Penn Relays record. But with senior Sheila Reid – one of the top college distance runners ever – back for one last shot at her first Penn Relays title, Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio appeared confident in last week’s pre-carnival press conference.

“I think we have our best shot in the last few years to bring home another wheel,” Procaccio said. “We’re definitely looking forward to having a really strong DMR. And what I am most excited about is I think this year we are actually going to have a 4x800. We haven’t had a 4x8 in this meet in over 10 years.”

Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan was equally optimistic about the Wildcats’ chances to bring home some hardware – while also excited for his athletes to compete against the best this country has to offer, on one of the sport’s biggest stages.

“This is as big as it gets,” said O’Sullivan, who competed in four Olympics during his own running career. “I compare it to the nervous energy that I would expect I would have gotten at the Olympic Games or World Championships. This is my barometer. This is what I can compare it to. This is a rite of passage, in my mind, to go on to the next level.”

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