Villanova begins title defense

Sheila Reid and Amanda Marino are used to spending time together, whether on the cross country course, the track, or listening to a particularly enthusiastic teacher of theirs discussing Shakespeare.

Ultimately, not too much has separated the Villanova teammates -- and it's likely that not much will Monday, either, when they compete in the NCAA Division I cross country championships.

Villanova, the defending champion women's team, is favored to repeat its title, led by Reid, a junior from Newmarket, Ontario. She has won seven of her past nine cross country races, dating back to the start of the 2009 season. That includes last weekend's NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional and the Big East championships on Oct. 30, both of which Villanova also won as a team.

Marino, a senior from Jackson, N.J., was second in the league meet, and then was fifth at the regional. They and teammates Bogdana Mimic, Ali Smith and Emily Lipari form the scoring core of a powerful squad that has been ranked first in the nation all this fall.

"I think having such a strong team makes it easier to go into the national championships without being nervous," Marino said. "Because you don't really think of yourself as an individual, but the team as a whole.

"So everything you do, you just kind of work with everybody else. It takes some of the pressure off. Running is a lot of an individual sport, but when you have such a good group of people supporting you and going through the same pain as you, it makes it a lot easier."

The men's and women's races are at Terre Haute, Ind., where the high temperature for Monday is projected to be a very warm 68 degrees, with the possibility of some wind and showers.

Marino and Reid were both part of Villanova's title team last season on this same course, and they have raced there other times, as well. That familiarity, along with the knowledge that they should be able to stay with the front pack throughout, provides confidence as they enter the race.

"It really helps that we're at a high level so we can push each other," Reid said of the Wildcats. "On any given day, at least one of us is going to be feeling good and can tow the team. The team aspect gives you an extra sense of motivation to dig deep and push hard.

"The course -- it helps to have run on it before, because you can definitely get lost in the crowd. There are just so many runners at the NCAA meet. You can just blank when you're out there, looking at so many people, and you can forget where you are on the course. It's really helpful to know it and have raced on it."

Last fall, Reid also won the Big East and Mid-Atlantic regional titles, then was 13th at the NCAA meet. Marino was runner-up in the 2009 league and regional meets, then placed sixth at nationals.

The NCAA team title last year represented Villanova's return to the top in the sport; the Wildcats had previously won the women's national championship in cross country seven times. That included a stretch from 1989 to 1994 when the Wildcats won six NCAA titles in a row.

The seventh came in 1998, and getting Villanova back to that top spot was a primary goal of coach Gina Procaccio, herself a former Wildcats standout. She graduated from Villanova in 1987 after competing her first three seasons at Florida. She won an NCAA track title as a Wildcat senior with the 4x800 meter relay team, and then had a successful post-collegiate career in which she won a U.S. championship in the 5,000 meters.

Injuries ended her competitive career at age 31, just before the 1996 Olympic Games, but by then she had already begun her transition into coaching in cross country and track. She spent a year at Georgetown in 1990-91, and then became an assistant at Villanova in 1994.

Procaccio is now in her 11th season as head coach, and last season was the Division I national coach of the year in cross country.

"The men's tradition in running at Villanova started back in the 1950s and '60s," she said. The Wildcats men won an NCAA outdoor track championship in 1957, and NCAA cross country titles in 1966, '67, '68 and '70.

"Then it was one of the first schools to have scholarships to offer women in track and field. So I think we kind of had a jump on getting a lot of runners early on. In my era, it was more about the middle-distance runners. My senior year, we made nationals in cross country, but we weren't good. But it evolved."

That resulted in the six-in-a-row streak of cross country titles. Last year's championship, though, was the first since for the program since 1998.

"It had been 11 years since we'd won or even been in the top four, before winning last year," Procaccio said. "My whole intention was to bring this program back to that level. That was always a goal of mine, for us to win a championship again."

Along the way, she has coached some of Villanova's best and brightest student-athletes. Four of the past five years, Wildcats women's cross country has led all Villanova squads in team GPA.

"I think it is a testament to the determination and focus of the distance runner," Reid said. Marino added, "It shows that we're hard workers in running and every other aspect of our lives."

Reid and Marino are All-Americans in track, too. Reid is a senior academically but a junior in NCAA eligibility, as she redshirted the 2008 outdoor season and then the cross country season in the fall of that year. She is majoring in English. Marino is majoring in secondary education and English. They've both taken several of the same courses.

"I love when I have classes with people on the team," Marino said, then added with a laugh, "because then when we go on trips, we can kind of collaborate and either do our work together -- or talk about not doing it yet, and it makes me feel better about it."

Reid and Marino are both big fans of the "Harry Potter" series of books -- "I'm not sure that's the epitome of great literature," Reid joked -- but they also get pretty psyched over Shakespeare.

"Our teacher was a theater major, so she gets really into it," Marino said. "So it's always fun to talk about Shakespeare."

However, this quote from perhaps the Bard's most famous work, "Romeo and Juliet," would not apply to the Villanova cross country team: "Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast."

Good advice, actually, for the fatally impetuous Romeo. But for these Wildcats, wisdom and speed indeed go hand in hand.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.