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They're relay great

Led by Mark Belger, Villanova won five out of five races at the Penn Relays

There is no such law on the books in Philly, of course, but it certainly looked as if there were last week at the Penn Relays, the nation's oldest, busiest, liveliest and, as it turned out, most singularly dominated track and field meet.

In the 84th running of the Franklin Field carnival—and what else do you call a gathering graced by hustlers hawking T shirts, jewelry and cotton candy, a dog on the track and enough athletes (9,000) to staff the Olympics?—Villanova stole the show to a degree beyond almost everyone's expectations and that included Wildcat Coach Jumbo Elliott.

Early in the week, perhaps fretting over unimpressive workouts and the virus that had taken up residence in one of Mark Belger's sinus cavities, Elliott said it would be "impossible" for his team to match its alltime record of winning five major relay championships at Penn, a feat the Wildcats had accomplished in 1968, '69 and '70.

At best, Jumbo should have said "implausible," for when Saturday's final relay had been run, Villanova had racked up five victories in the five team events it had entered. Tim Dale's superb 45.2-second anchor leg, which enabled the Wildcats to add the 1,600-meter title to their two-day haul, may also have proved that Villanova was destined to win even on the rare occasion when a rival team might run as fast. Tennessee equaled the Wildcats' time of 3:04.5 for the race, but Dale, who had slipped past the Vols' Antone Blair on the last turn of the final lap, was judged to have hit the tape first by an eyelash.

The inevitability of Villanova's juggernaut hardly was apparent Friday when the Wildcats won their 13th straight distance medley in 9:37.8, thanks mainly to Don Paige's heady running on the anchor leg. Paige, a handsome 21-year-old junior who lost the last two outdoor seasons to stress fractures in his left leg, held off East Tennessee's 3:55 Irish import, Ray Flynn, who ran his 1,600-meter anchor in a blistering 3:56.9.

"When I heard Flynn coming up," said Paige, "I figured he had to have run his first three laps very well, and because of that there was no way he could outkick me. I didn't kick that much; I ran with power. I was content to run to win." Which he did with a time of 4:02.3.

However, Belger, the ace half-miler who ran the 1,200-meter third leg, and who has yet to be beaten in four Penn Relays, almost ran himself into exhaustion. He opened with a 52-second lap and ran at a 1:52 pace over the first 800 meters. It was much too fast, and Belger finished on leaden legs in 2:57.3.

Even so, he was better off than Tennessee's Sammy James. An Ace bandage on James' right leg came unfastened at the first turn of the second lap. Soon it trailed behind James like a kite tail and almost tripped him before he had to drop out.

"The Penn Relays, that's a tense time in your track life," Belger reflected after the race. "It's a week when you've got to lay low and prepare to make no mistakes. And I feel lousy. I've got this cold, we're just starting finals and I can't get to sleep. It's just hectic."

The next day, rebounding from his misjudged pace and the bug, Belger twice anchored the Wildcats to victory and thus extended his individual Penn Relays success to 10 triumphs in 10 races, exceeding Marty Liquori's Villanova record by one.

In the sprint medley, Dale (45.9), Keith Brown (20.9) and Albert Graves (20.7) sent Belger off with a three-meter lead and he was never seriously challenged. Belger ran the 800 meters in 1:47.4 to give the Wildcats a 3:14.9 mark that was one second shy of the meet record.

But with a thought to the 3,200-meter relay that would be contested less than two hours later, Belger said, "I wish it hadn't been that fast. In the Penn Relays, I'm more concerned about how fast I have to run than how fast I run."

He needn't have worried. In the metric equivalent of the two-mile relay, Belger got the baton four meters behind New Mexico's fleet Kenyan, Sammy Kipkurgat, after Paige had made up six meters on the Lobos by running the third leg in 1:47.1.

Going into the gun lap, Belger had cut the deficit to two meters as the crowd of 36,421 roared its approval at the best sustained duel of the afternoon. Belger passed Kipkurgat on the final turn and won by three meters in 1:47.1

"I love it," Belger said. "I've got a lot of faith in myself. I knew it would be a two-man race. I wanted to feel him out but I made one move and he faded. It was a good race. I wish there were more like that." Later, Belger's joy was heightened still further when he was named Outstanding College Track Athlete of the meet. (Indiana's Robert Cannon won the title among field athletes for his 53'10¼" triple jump.)

Villanova's fifth victory came in the 6,000-meter relay, in which Dean Childs (3:47.9), Jim Flynn (3:47.4), John Burns (3:44.0) and Paige (3:47.8) beat Penn State by .8 of a second. The Nittany Lions' foursome of Mike Wyatt, Dave Felice, Tom Rapp and Robert Snyder (3:45.2) took solace from the fact that their 15:07.9 mark was an American record because Childs is Canadian.

Villanova was the dominant team, but bad breaks prevented Renaldo Nehemiah, Maryland's 19-year-old freshman hurdler, from achieving similar status on an individual level. On Friday, shortly after asking Terrapin Coach Frank Costello, "How many races can I run?" Nehemiah anchored Maryland's 400-meter relay team to a 40.08 mark that led all qualifiers; led off the 800-meter relay team with a 20.6 leg; won his high-hurdle heat in a wind-aided 13.41 and anchored the 480-yard shuttle hurdle relay team to the fastest (57.8) qualifying time by flying over the barriers in an unofficial 13.3 seconds.

On Saturday, Nehemiah anchored the sprint relay team to a 39.89 victory and ran the fastest time in the world this year (13.52, which is also a junior world record) in the 110-meter hurdles. But Maryland's 800-meter relay team, to which he contributed another 20.6 leg, finished second to Tennessee by one-tenth of a second and, worst of all, the shuttle hurdle team was disqualified when an official ruled that Nehemiah had started too soon. Costello timed Nehemiah in 12.8 for Saturday's anchor leg as Maryland finished in 55.7 seconds, one-tenth off the world record.

The vast number of entrants and events at the Penn Relays often tends to obscure outstanding performances, such as that of Darroll Gatson, who ran a sizzling 44.5 leg for third-place Alabama in the finals of the 1,600-meter relay. Had Villanova not won, it might have been a happier day for the Bama bullet. As it was, Gatson was just another athlete thinking, "There oughtta be a law."


NOTICE TO ALL ENTRANTS: In any relay event contested by Villanova, you will finish no higher than second owing to the laws of nature and a Philadelphia municipal ordinance.