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Photo: Courtesy of Villanova Athletics / The Daily Pennsylvanian

There’s succeeding, and then there’s success.

When the Villanova women’s distance medley relay team collected its first Penn Relays title in 1984, not even the school itself could have predicted the decades of success that were to follow.

The DMR is a race that is comprised of four legs, each of varying length. The first leg is 1,200 meters, followed by a 400m leg, an 800m leg, and a 1,600m final leg. All legs are considered “middle distance runs” aside from the 400m, which is considered a sprint.

Since the inception of the DMR at the Penn Relays in 1980, Villanova has amassed 14 victories, almost tripling the total of Tennessee, the second most successful school with five wins.

The 14 DMR titles are not only the most from a school in the event itself, but they are also the most that a school has earned in any of the women’s outdoor events at the Penn Relays.

Perhaps even more impressive than the number of titles is the Wildcats’ ability to dominate the event for consecutive years, with five titles in a row from 1987-91, and more notably, the last four from 2012-15.

Despite these remarkable feats, recent races indicate that the defending champs might be looking at a tough task to make it a five-peat in this year’s race, held this Thursday at 5:40 PM at Franklin Field. However, Villanova women’s track coach Gina Procaccio remains adamant that while her team may not be the favorites, past triumphs indicate that they’ll undoubtedly be competitive.

“For some reason, I always feel like [on paper] we’re the underdogs here, even though we’ve had a lot of success,” Procaccio said. “There might not be as many big names out there this year, but they’re still from Villanova and they know what the Penn Relays are all about.”

Some of the big question marks for the Wildcats’ DMR team are the very people that might not know what the competition is all about — namely, the freshmen runners. Two of the four runners from last year’s group will not be competing this year. Stephanie Schappert, a four-time All-American, graduated last spring, while another DMR veteran, Angel Piccirillo, is out of this year’s competition due to a lingering injury.

Although the team was prepared to compete without Schappert this year, Piccirillo’s injury could be devastating. The Homer City, Pa., native had set the collegiate record in the 1,000m at the Big East Championships in February, and she finished second in the mile at the NCAA Championships last month.

Even scarier for the Villanova faithful is that Schappert and Piccirillo ran the first and last legs of the relay, which are the two longest and most important legs, as Procaccio explains.

“Both of those legs are crucial to the outcome,” Procaccio said. “The leadoff leg essentially determines if you’re going to be in the race at all, and the anchor is the person you want to bring it home when you have the lead at the last handoff.”

The two freshmen in line to replace Piccirillo and Schappert on this year’s team are Vancouver native Nicole Hutchinson and Ohio resident Sammy Bockoven. The two girls raced head-to-head on Friday to see who would take on the responsibility of the anchor. The results of that race have not been made public.

Hutchinson and Bockover will likely join sophomore Siofra Cleirigh Buttner and senior Michaela Wilkins, the two runners returning from last year’s group. Regardless of who runs the all-important anchor leg, Procaccio is not counting her inexperienced team out.

“I’m confident that we can still be competitive by the end of the race,” Procaccio said. “There are some pretty impressive anchors coming to compete against our freshmen, we’ll just have to see what happens.”

One of the more distinguishing aspects of Procaccio’s interview was that instead of expressing supreme confidence in her team’s chances this year, she repeatedly referenced the future, which might catch the eyes of competitors that think this could be the year the Wildcats’ winning streak is broken. Procaccio did mention, however, that she was “excited to see what the freshmen can do” and that she believes the new runners are “ready for the competitive environment.”

Read into it what you will, but one thing is for sure — if history tells us anything, come the final leg of the relay, the Wildcats will be right in the mix.

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