Women's D-I Championship: Villanova Claws Back On Top

11/23/2009 - 17:25

01_ncaa-09-c-xc-div2-logo_0.gifTERRE HAUTE, Ind.—Gina Procaccio was a part of Villanova cross country’s glory days as a runner, yet as a coach, she wasn’t entirely sure the Wildcats could climb all the way back. Times have changed in the sport.

But now, the past is present again. Villanova is back on top.

The Wildcats won their eighth NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championships on Monday, the school’s first since 1998. Junior Amanda Marino led the team with a sixth-place finish on the LaVern Gibson Championship Course at the Wabash Valley Family Sports Center, clocking 20 minutes, 3 seconds over the 6K layout. Sheila Reid, the Mid Atlantic Regional champion, scored 12th-place team points with a 20:17 effort.

For Villanova, the 6K distance hasn’t come naturally since the NCAA switched to the distance in 2000. At that time, Procaccio took over and started to consider the school’s new place in the sport.

“We are traditionally a middle-distance program, we have to recruit for Penn Relays—that’s our Olympic games,” she said. “When it was 6K, I wondered if we’ll ever win this again.

“Three years ago I recruited Amanda, Ali (Smith, fourth for the team on Monday), Sheila, I just told them, ‘when I came to Villanova, a group of us all came in together, then won their first title. I think you guys can do that. I really believe by the time you’re juniors and seniors, we can be national champions.’”

That dream came true under clear Indiana skies that moved from chilly in the morning to warm by race time. With 86 points, Villanova prevailed in a fairly easy win over Florida State (133) and Washington (188).

The Huskies came into the race with the top spot in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association rankings, but couldn’t live up to the billing in the Championships. Sophomore Kendra Schaaf finished second in 19:51, but the nearest teammate was 40 seconds behind. Katie Follett earned 21st-place team points at 20:32. By comparison, Villanova’s top four earned sixth, 12th, 20th and 22nd team points.

The individual medallist was Illinois’ Angela Bizzarri, finishing in 19:46 to add a cross country championship to her NCAA title at 5,000 meters in her junior year of track. As a senior, she finished her road-racing career fighting to the finish, pulling ahead of Schaaf and running down Florida State’s Susan Kuijken, who led by some 40 meters at the midway point but faded to third at 19:57.

“I felt Kuijken coming back to me, I thought I’d be able to catch her,” Bizzarri said. “It was an awesome feeling.”

The Mason, Ohio, native surprised herself, able to survive the long final straightaway on the LaVern Gibson course for a five-second victory.

“You say it to yourself beforehand, ‘I know I can do this,’ but when it comes to fruition, it’s so much more startling to me,” she said. “I know I was in great shape coming into this, it’s not that I was doubting myself, it just for things to work out the way you want to and the way you’ve been training for and the way you’ve worked so hard for, it just doesn’t always happen that way.

“I guess you’ve got to embrace the times that it does.”

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