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Granddaddy Of All Relays Is Like No Other!

April 27th, 2017

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

OK, so you consider yourself to be a track & field aficionado - a connoisseur of athletics. But let's be honest: if you have not personally experienced the majesty, the cultural immersion, the electricity of The Penn Relay Carnival, your résumé is incomplete. Over the next three days of perfect springtime weather, the University of Pennsylvania will host approximately 20,000 athletes from more than 1,000 high schools, 200 colleges from 32 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 11 countries, and a professional gathering featuring some of the most accomplished track & field athletes in the world who will compete in 302 events to the delight of over 100,000 frenetic fans.

And the excitement is not limited to inside the ivy-covered walls of Franklin Field. After all, this Relay is billed as a carnival - and it is. A festival-like atmosphere surrounds this historic landmark: nervous athletes stretching and completing their warm-ups, fans relaxing and enjoying a bite to eat, others trying their hand at sideshow games, food stands offering standard fare and exotic cuisine, and the ever-present, irrepressible green-black-and-yellow clad Jamaican fans - all amid the blare of party music and the unusual blended aroma of sizzling Philly cheesesteaks and analgesic balm.

Thursday - Day One - is predominantly a showcase for the prep girls, the highlight of which may well be the 57 consecutive sections of the high school girls' 4 x 400m relay - an endless stream of blockless relay races conducted with the Swiss-watch precision for which Penn is known.

While catching every special moment at Penn is a task even the most attentive observer cannot achieve, here are a few of the shinier nuggets to be appreciated after sifting through the avalanche of Day One results:

•St. Augustine's Tia-Adana Belle glided over the timbers in 56.26 to capture the Penn Relay title in the collegiate women's 400 meter hurdles.
•Aided by ideal weather conditions, high school girl sprint quartets had to clock 46.291 or faster to make Friday's 4x100 meter relay final. Jamaica's Vere Tech just missed advancing by .008 seconds.
•In the heats of the collegiate women's 4x1, the Oregon women, who had set the collegiate record of 42.12 earlier this season, posted the day's fastest mark of 43.12 - without two of their stars: Hannah Cunliffe and Ariana Washington. If the Duck's "A" squad spikes up tomorrow, the Penn Relay record of 42.59 [LSU 2008] could be in peril.
•17-year-old super prep Sydney McLaughlin - an Olympian and a member of the world record-setting indoor DMR squad earlier this year - uncorked a sparkling 50.78 anchor leg to come from way back in 3rd to lead Union Catholic of Scotch Plains, New Jersey to victory in their section of 4x400m relay in 3:39.35.
•During Thursday evening's distance events under the lights, the most exciting race was the men's 5000 meters where Kentucky's Jacob Thomson [13:53.04] nipped Eastern Michigan senior star Willy Fink [13:54.85] for the win.

But the crown jewel of Day One was the Championship of America section of the collegiate women's distance medal relay. With PAC-12 powerhouses Oregon and Stanford electing to focus their attention on other races, the DMR was shaping up as a wide-open competition. In the opening leg, 5 teams - Notre Dame, Penn State, Villanova, Columbia, and Indiana - ultimately eased away from the 7 other competitors in the field. A strong finish by Wildcat leadoff runner Nicole Hutchinson [3:21.39] placed 'Nova a close second behind Notre Dame after 1200 meters. Wildcat frosh McKenna Keegan [54.05] ran an aggressive 400 meter second leg before handing off to her teammate Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner who launched off on the 800 meter leg 4 meters behind the Fighting Irish. Measured racing allowed the 5 schools to once again bunch up as the final lap of the 800 meter leg began. Suddenly - at the top of the backstretch - a swift and decisive move by Cleirigh-Buttner [2:05.78] broke the race open. Powering over the final 300 meters the Ireland athlete presented Villanova anchor Angel Piccirillo a commanding 30 meter lead. Never threatened, the red-shirt senior [4:32.76] sealed the victory for Villanova in 10:53.97 - a clocking tied for 8th on the Penn all-time list.

Afterwards, the joyful quartet and their coach shared their thoughts. Villanova coach Gina Procaccio singled out Cleirigh-Buttner for her explosive move on the backstretch. "I was confident that once she went, she would open up the race," noted the Wildcat mentor. The Lady Wildcats have dominated the DMR at Penn, winning the event now 15 of the 38 times the race has been run here. "I'm fortunate to have a bunch of great athletes," she confided.

The soft-spoken Cleirigh-Buttner explained the thinking behind her race-changing spurt. "Usually, I wait until there are 200 meters to go, but the pace was kind of slow. So right before 300 to go, my legs just wanted to go on the backstretch," revealed Irish athlete. "I was able to break away and that was great."

Senior leader Piccirillo was pleased the way her teammates performed, making her task all the easier. "We were going to win it, no matter what," offered Piccirillo matter-of-factly. "When Siofra opened up that gap, I was thinking, 'Even better, we're going to make it decisive.' So I wanted to make sure I brought it in." The Wildcat anchor has now been a member of 7 Villanova winning relays here at Penn - tying her with 2 others for the most relay championships at this Carnival.

Procaccio coyly deflected inquiries about further Penn racing assignments for her thoroughbreds. But you can be sure we will see Piccirillo in one or more additional relays this weekend, thereby giving her a chance to become the Carnival's undisputed all-time relay champion leader. Well over 20,000 fans feasted on today's initial track & field serving from the Penn smorgasbord. With Angel Piccirillo now on the threshold of perhaps establishing an all-time relay championship record, an even larger number of the sport's followers have yet another reason to return to Franklin Field tomorrow to dine on Penn's second course.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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