Aisling Cuffe never stood a chance.
Sure, the Stanford junior is a six-time All-American who held what looked to be a seemingly comfortable lead in the final lap of the college women’s distance medley relay championship at the Penn Relays on Thursday.
But the problem was she was leading Villanova’s Emily Lipari. And at the Penn Relays, Lipari just knows how to win.
In the biggest race of the first day of the historic track meet at Franklin Field, Lipari used a tremendous kick on the straightaway to pass Cuffe and lead Villanova to a stunning come-from-behind victory in the women’s DMR.
“When you’re in these races, you always have to believe you’re going to come in first,” Lipari said. “You can’t really have that doubt.”
By now, anyone that doubts Lipari would be foolish.
The star senior has helped Villanova win the last three DMRs at the Penn Relays -- which marks the Wildcats’ first threepeat since they won five straight from 1987 to 1991. And at last year’s Penn Relays, she had another stunning comeback when she chased down Oregon’s Laura Roesler to lead ’Nova to its first 4x800 championship since 1997.
On Thursday, Lipari passed Roesler and Georgetown’s Rachel Schneider relatively early in her anchor leg, turning what had been a four-team race into a two-team sprint to the finish.
And although it looked like Cuffe had enough left in the tank to lead Stanford to its first women’s DMR title at Penn, Lipari chased her down just before the finish line as Villanova won the race in a time of 10:57.35 -- a mere 0.29 seconds ahead of the Cardinal.
While the comeback may have surprised some of the 21,422 fans in the crowd, it didn’t surprise her coach and teammates in the slightest.
“I know Emily so well,” fellow senior Nicky Akande said. “I know the way she runs. Once her arms get going, she’s good to go. The last 200, I was like, ‘Yeah.’”
“We see what Emily brings to the track,” junior Stephanie Schappert added. “And I think we’re all pretty confident in it.”
Schappert enjoyed an impressive run herself, opening the race by running the 1,200-meter leg in 3:25 as Villanova was neck-and-neck with Stanford for first place. Michaela Wilkins struggled a bit in the 400 leg, running it in 54.40 as the ’Cats fell back into fourth. But Akande ran a solid 800 in 2:04.51 to get Lipari within striking distance.
At that point, Villanova head coach Gina Procaccio knew the same thing Lipari’s teammates did: that the ’Cats would win their 13th Penn Relays DMR title.
“I didn’t think she would lose to Aisling Cuffe,” Procaccio said. “They were high school rivals and Emily did the same thing to her in the high school 3,000 a few years back. Aisling is a phenomenal runner. She can run a solid mile. She’s tough. She’s out there pushing the pace in the wind.
“But I know Emily has the kick no matter who she’s against. [Cuffe] opened up a little, bit but I was still pretty confident Emily would run her down.”
Cuffe and Lipari, who both hail from New York, indeed know each other well. And while Lipari may have gotten the better of Cuffe in high school, the ’Nova senior was also out for a little bit of revenge.
“I raced Cuffe in high school and I know she has incredible range,” Lipari said. “She got me in NCAA cross [country] this year, so I was kind of hungry for this one. We’re really excited for what’s to come.”
What’s to come for Villanova is the unique opportunity to win three relays at Penn. The Wildcats compete in the 4x1500 on Friday and the 4x800 on Saturday.
The Villanova men, meanwhile, begin their quest for a Penn Relays title Friday in the prestigious men’s distance medley relay.
In other local collegiate action Thursday, Penn’s Kelsey Hay came in sixth in the women’s javelin championship with a throw of 154 feet, 10 inches. Penn State’s Laura Loht won the event at 167-8.
Princeton’s Julia Ratcliffe won the women’s hammer throw at 216-2 and North Carolina State picked up two college championships with Tremanisha Taylor defending her shot put crown (57-9) and Alexis Perry winning the long jump (20-9 ¼).
Can Team USA upstage “The World?”
While Thursday and Friday are filled with high school and college events, the Penn Relays will heat up on Saturday with the famous USA vs. The World races.
The six races that pit some of the top American runners against athletes from countries that include Australia, the Bahamas, China and Jamaica -- the women’s 4x100 (12:35 p.m.), the men’s 4x100 (1:05), the women’s spring medley (1:15), the men’s distance medley (2:05), the women’s 4x400 (2:35) and the men’s 4x400 (2:52) -- will be televised on NBC Sports Network.
Among the invited athletes scheduled to compete for the Team USA men are five-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin, Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano and two-time Olympic medalist Walter Dix.
On the women’s side, Team USA is led by three-time Olympic medalist DeeDee Trotter, who’s won two gold medals as a member of the U.S. women’s 4x400.
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Aisling Cuffe never stood a chance.