The Penn Relays college women's distance medley relay championship had reached its halfway point in beautiful sunshine Thursday at Franklin Field and five teams were still very much in contention.
Then suddenly, four of them weren't. Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner made a break for it and shot out of the pack, and the Wildcats turned the day's marquee race into a decisive romp.
With Buttner, a junior, running an 800-meter leg of 2 minutes, 5.78 seconds, and fifth-year senior Angel Piccirillo finishing the task with a solid 1,600-meter anchor, the Wildcats won the event for the fifth time in the last six years. Their time of 10:53.97 tied for the eighth-best finish in carnival history.
With a crowd of 22,894 looking on, the race highlighted a day of women's competition that included trials in the college 4x100 and 4x400 relays, field event finals, and dozens of high school events.
Buttner, of Ireland, took the baton in second place after gritty runs by sophomore Nicole Hutchinson (1,200 meters) and freshman McKenna Keegan (400) put Villanova in second place. She said she wanted to wait until 200 meters to go to make her move, but there was a point in the race when "my legs just wanted to go" at 300.
"Usually I like to kind of wait until 200 to go, but as it was today, I think it was just too slow," she said. "I just decided to stretch it out on the back straight and tried to [accelerate] a little bit more every 50 and give Angel a few extra meters."
Piccirillo, who redshirted last season because of plantar fasciitis, was more than happy to accept Buttner's handoff 25 meters in front. She cruised around the track in 4:32.76, finishing 10 meters in front of Penn State. Nittany Lions anchor Danae Rivers went around in 4:31.05 and edged Notre Dame for third.
"It was great to see, everybody's splits were on," Piccirillo said. "It got me excited. They're all going so I'm going to go and I'm thinking, 'We're going to win it no matter what.' Then to see Siofra open up a gap, I was like, 'That's even better, we're going to make it decisive.' I just wanted to make sure I brought it in."
Because of Piccirillo's injury last year, coach Gina Procaccio decided against entering a team because "we just weren't strong enough to compete for the title."
"These girls know what the tradition is all about, Villanova in the Penn Relays," she said. "I'm really glad that decision [to redshirt Piccirillo] paid off and she was able to come back this year and anchor for the win. But my hat's off to the girls. They're the ones that get out and do it."
Hutchinson, a sophomore, ran her 1,200 opening leg in 3:21.39 while Keegan, a freshman from Avon Grove High School, covered 400 meters in 54.05 seconds.
The Oregon women, who won the NCAA indoor championship last month, posted the fastest times in qualifying for the 4x100 and the 4x400, clocking 43.12 in the shorter race and 3:30.16 in the longer one. Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and UTech of Jamaica were the other schools to advance to the championship race in both relays.
St. Augustine's senior Tia-Adana Belle, who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics for Barbados, won the college women's 400-meter hurdles in 56.26 seconds.
The women's field events were highlighted by the third carnival championship for Princeton's Julia Ratcliffe in the hammer throw. Ratcliffe, a senior from New Zealand who already owned the third- and fourth-longest throws in Penn Relays history, heaved the hammer 215 feet, 6 inches on Thursday, tying her for fifth all-time.