PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - Maybe it was written in the stars that on the same weekend Villanova celebrated its rich tradition as one of the most storied track & field programs in the history of the sport its fans would simultaneously be treated to a so-good-you-couldn’t-have-scripted-this performance for the ages at the Penn Relays on Saturday afternoon. It would be as good an explanation as any for the sheer determination that carried sophomore Casey Comber (Maple Glen, Pa.) across the Franklin Field finish line and into the Wildcats record books with the team’s second Championship of America title in as many days.
Villanova won the 4xMile relay in a gritty finish against a wide open field of teams, making champions out of sophomore Logan Wetzel (Saline, Mich.), senior Ben Malone (River Vale, N.J.), sophomore Andrew Marston (Wayne, Pa.) and Comber just a day after the Wildcats captured the distance medley relay title for the first time in seven years. Saturday added the team’s first 4xMile championship since 2015, and made this the first time in 34 years that Villanova won two Championship of America relays in the same season. The previous instance was in 1984 when current head coach Marcus O’Sullivan ran legs on both of the winning relays during his senior year in a Wildcats singlet. Comber is Villanova’s first men’s runner since John Marshall in 1982 to anchor two winning relays in the same year.
“To see them evolve in this 16 minute period of time, you change,” O’Sullivan said of the 4xMile victory. “That’s part of growing up is you hit these thresholds, and to watch them come together and feel what it’s like and how big this is, it’s great. To be in here (press conference), to know what goes on when you win and to actually understand that, you can grow from it. You know what the level is and what you have to do.”
It was a five-team race when Comber got the baton for the anchor leg, which he ran in 4:04.5 to just outlast Georgetown by less than half a second at the finish line. Comber was in position to take the lead when the bell sounded for the start of the final lap, and every ounce of energy he used over those last 400 meters went towards maintaining the lead regardless of how narrow the margin was going to be. The top four teams – Princeton and Iona followed the Hoyas in third and fourth place, respectively – were separated by less than 1.5 seconds.
“Coming around that first bend I just went to the lead and I was going to protect my lead as much as I can,” Comber said. “The guys got me in a good spot and I got myself into a good spot on that last leg, so that last lap was about fighting and fighting as hard as I could to bring it home.”
Villanova staggered the lineup with fresh legs running first and third, as Malone and Comber had each run a grueling DMR race less than 24 hours earlier. Wetzel led off the 4xMile with a split of 4:09.0 and handed off the baton in the middle of a crowd. Malone followed with a split of 4:04.6 on the second leg of the relay.
Most of the field chased front-running Adams State during the second leg of the relay, with Malone and eight others biding their time for as long as they could. The gap narrowed as the runners approached the second exchange, with Marston getting the baton for the third leg of the race. He ran a split of 4:05.7 while the Wildcats joined Princeton, Georgetown, Iona and Adams State in a five-team leading pack that separated itself from the field.
The pace slowed down at the start of the anchor leg but picked back up in earnest after two methodical laps around the track. Comber kept himself in the mix, then struck as soon as he felt the instinct.
“It was great to watch,” O’Sullivan said. “To analyze it and see it in slow motion, which is how I was watching it in my own mind, it was great. I was watching from the 200 mark and when Casey got to 200 left I was like ‘this is going to be rough.’ I could win from that position so I felt it and I knew exactly what it was going to take. Every step was a step of protection. Every time [he] was attacked he was ready to go again, to the point where it’s rare to see but [the other contending teams] literally buckled from the stress and pressure of trying to catch somebody that was not catchable today.”
The evolution of this year’s Wildcats team has been a remarkable one. Malone is a fifth-year senior who had to wait until yesterday’s DMR triumph to hold up his first career Penn Relays wheel. Wetzel is in his second year of athletic eligibility after returning from an injury that cost him an entire calendar year of racing. Marston and Comber are local products who arrived on campus three years ago and redshirted their true freshman seasons before working their way into Villanova’s cross country lineup.
“Having Casey on the team yesterday was special,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s taking it up a whole new notch for Andrew Marston to be on the team. If you would have told me to put money down his freshman year that he was going to be on a 4xMile at Penn, I wouldn’t have taken the bet.”
“I know Marcus said before this weekend that it’s the years you don’t expect to win where you can really pull off something special,” Malone said. This is the first time we have won two relays since the heyday of Villanova track & field, so I think we did something special. Clearly Casey is on fire right now. I knew that if we gave him a chance to win he could do it for us. He’s so strong and when he made that move on the back stretch I knew he would will it home. He out-willed everyone two days in a row.”