Villanova wins Penn Relays women's distance medley relay fueled by Nicole Hutchinson, Siofra Cleirigh Buttner

Villanova’s McKenna Keegan, Rachel McArthur and Nicole Hutchinson celebrate together after they won the Penn Relays women’s distance medley Championship of America at Franklin Field.
Villanova’s McKenna Keegan, Rachel McArthur and Nicole Hutchinson celebrate together after they won the Penn Relays women’s distance medley Championship of America at Franklin Field.

As she hit the turn to enter the final straightaway of the opening leg in the Penn Relays women’s distance medley relay, Villanova’s Nicole Hutchinson decided to take a look around. What she saw – or rather, what she didn’t see – surprised her.

“I didn’t realize I was all alone,” she said, “so I checked over my inside shoulder and I didn’t see anyone and I got really confused. Then I checked over my outside shoulder and I still didn’t see anyone. So I kind of figured, ‘OK, I guess it’s just me.’”

Hutchinson, a junior from Canada, handed the baton off with a 30-meter lead and watched as her teammates mastered the art of running alone for the final 2,800 meters to give the Wildcats their sixth DMR victory in the last seven years Thursday at Franklin Field.

The team of Hutchinson (1,200 meters), sophomore McKenna Keegan (400), freshman Rachel McArthur (800) and senior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner (1,600) crossed the line in 11 minutes, 1.94 seconds. Notre Dame closed quickly and took second in 11:03.71.

The pre-race instructions from coach Gina Procaccio to Hutchinson was to “maybe sit for a lap and then kind of just start cranking it out.”

Said Hutchinson with a laugh, “I probably took it a little bit too seriously.

“I went out in the first 400 and I was planning to sit with them,” she said of her 3:21.86 opening leg. “But it ended up I got myself right at the front and no one was willing to go by me, so I figured, ‘Yes, I might as well take it right from the gun and just go with it.’”

The challenge for the other three Wildcats was to maintain the lead without really knowing what anyone behind them was doing.

Keegan, from Avon Grove High School, started out fast but was hurting at the end of her 55.71-second lap. McArthur, who has raced previously at the carnival but was making her Villanova debut, went out for her 800 leg in 59 seconds and struggled coming home, finishing in 2:08.30.

Then, on her way to her seventh career Penn Relays watch, Buttner also went faster than she needed on her opening lap and was wobbling by the time she hit the finish line and collapsed following a split of 4:36.09.

“I made it hard for myself,” she said. “I went out in 63 [seconds] and I definitely didn’t intend on doing that. I knew there were some other strong anchors so I knew they were hunting me down. I didn’t feel the first lap was that fast until the last 100 meters, when I was just trying to stay on my feet until the line.

“My legs were definitely dead those last 20 meters, so it really was a matter of keeping my knees up because I could really feel my form breaking and I was just dying for the line to come quicker.”

Still, the Wildcats will take the victory. Villanova will run Friday in the 4×1500, an event it has won three of the last four years, and in Saturday’s 4×800, where it owns four victories in the last five years.

Elsewhere on the track, Auburn’s women posted the fastest time in qualifying for the 4×100, coming across in 44.02 seconds, while Duke was timed in 3:37.53 to lead qualifiers in the 4×400. Shannon Kalawan of St. Augustine won the day’s opening event, the 400-meter hurdles, in 57.30.