After two years of runner-up relay finishes at big meets, Stanford broke out with a Penn Relays victory in the women's 4x1500 meters on Friday at Franklin Field.
The team of Rebecca Mehra, Jessica Tonn, Elise Cranny, and Claudia Saunders clocked 17:24.54 to outdistance runner-up North Carolina and earn the Cardinal a measure of redemption. It was Stanford's first Penn Relays victory - and ownership of the massive circular trophy known as "the wheel" -- since 2006 in the same event.
Stanford also was third in the men's distance medley relay and seventh in the women's sprint medley relay.
Tonn, Cranny, and Saunders all had been on the distance medley relay teams that lost to Villanova on Thursday and to Arkansas at the NCAA Indoor Championships. In fact, Stanford had finished second in the DMR or 4x1500 races a combined five times in the past two seasons without a victory.
But all that changed, with help from a strategic switch from Cardinal coach Chris Miltenberg. In all five of those runner-up finishes, Stanford had been outkicked by runners patiently waiting at the Cardinal heels.
Rather than simply get to the lead around the final exchange and depend wholly on the anchor to outrun the opposition, Stanford changed the order to power to an insurmountable lead over the first three legs, and have the anchor manage the gap and hold on.
That meant that Cranny, the fastest of the group and the anchor throughout the DMRs this year, would switch to the third leg. And Saunders, a half-miler and the slowest of the four at 1,500, was placed at anchor.
"Going into this race we were just really excited to get another shot at the win," Tonn said. "Yes, we really wanted to hold that wheel above our heads after the DMR yesterday, but we came into today just excited to execute our plan, and run for each other regardless of what other teams were on the starting line."
Though disappointed No. 1 seed and Penn Relays nemesis Villanova was not in the field, Stanford got out strong with Mehra, a second-team outdoor All-America at 1,500, opening with a 4:23.0 split, putting the Cardinal in front.
"It was disappointing to not see them out there, but we were just doing us," Mehra said. "It doesn't matter who is in the race. We're doing our own thing regardless. Our strategy is not built around who is in the race."
The Cardinal maintained the lead through Tonn's 4:22.2 and extended it with Cranny's 4:17.2, which tied for the fastest split of the day.
"After yesterday's loss, I was just very excited to get another chance," Cranny said. "I love running relays because you always have teammates right there. It's amazing to have the opportunity to come to this meet because it is so different than many of the meets we do throughout the season. We don't have to worry about running times but we just get to compete together. I'm so glad I got to come and experience and that we were able to bring tack a wheel."
As expected, Saunders was tested. North Carolina's Annie LeHardy, whose move in the DMR altered Cranny's strategy Thursday and may have contributed to the loss, came up on Saunders. But the outdoor 800 first-team All-America found enough in reserve to hold off the charge and even extend her lead down the stretch, running a 4:25.1.
"After yesterday's loss, it made us want to win even more," Saunders said. "I did my best to maintain the lead they put up for me. I figured there was a possibility of coming down to the end, but I was ready to put my foot down in the last 150 meters."
With that, the wheel belonged to Stanford. The only question remaining was: Can you fit it in the overhead compartment on the flight home? The answer: Probably not.
"It was the best feeling to hold the Penn Relays wheel above our heads after yesterday and last year," Tonn said. "This was a team effort and we ran not only for those on the relay, but for the girls back at home. I don't think we were going to head home without a wheel -- we laid it all out there today. This team is awesome and I can't wait to see how many wheels the Cardinal will bring home in the future."
In the men's DMR, sophomore Sean McGorty ran the fastest 1,600 split in the field -- even faster than Oregon multiple NCAA champion Edward Cheserek -- to key Stanford's third-place finish, which matched the Cardinal's 2014 performance.
McGorty ran 3:59.35, while Cheserek's 3:59.55 anchored Oregon to the victory. McGorty got the baton from Luke Lefebure, who ran the 800 in 1:49.60, the third-fastest split of the day. The Cardinal was led by Justin Brinkley (2:59.03 for 1,200) and Jackson Shumway (49.15).
In the women's sprint medley, Kristyn Williams ran 52.8 for 400 the third-fastest split of the day -- on Stanford's ninth-place team. Michaela Crunkleton Wilson and Gaby Gayles led Stanford off and Olivia Baker, back at the Penn Relays after starring there in high school, anchored with an 800.
Stanford concludes competition Saturday in the men's 4xMile and men's and women's 4x800's.
Six days ago, Billy Griffith outlasted Nolan Paige in a three-setter to snap Stanford's 10-match winning streak and spoil Senior Day.
Paige returned the favor on Friday afternoon when the stakes were raised, clinching No. 26 Stanford's 4-1 victory over No. 25 California in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Championships.
Advancing to the tournament final for the first time in school history, Stanford (17-5, 6-1 Pac-12) will face the winner of No. 8 USC/No. 15 UCLA on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT. The Cardinal, which clinched a share of the conference regular-season title for the first time since 2010, split the season series with both the Trojans and Bruins.
Paige's 2-6, 7-6 (3), 7-5 victory secured the Cardinal's semifinal victory on Friday, representing its second win in three attempts against California (18-8, 5-2 Pac-12) this season.
The winner of Saturday's championship game receives the Pac-12's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford, UCLA and USC are all but assured of a postseason berth, but another victory would be helpful for seeding purposes.
Stanford captured the doubles point for a 12th consecutive match, taking an early 1-0 lead.
David Hsu made it 2-0 following a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Mads Engsted at the No. 6 spot.
After California trimmed the deficit to 2-1 with a win on court four, John Morrissey posted a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 triumph over Filip Bergevi at the No. 2 position.
Paige followed with the clincher.
Stanford lost to host Arizona, 11-0, in five innings Friday night in Pac-12 Conference action.
The Cardinal (1-15, 16-30) was again without three players who left the team last weekend.
The three who departed combined to hit .309 with 46 RBI and 69 runs scored. All three are also on Stanford's all-time list in various categories.
Meanwhile, Stanford managed one hit, a single from Erin Ashby leading off the fourth.
The two pitchers who transferred from Stanford the past two years are a combined 19-3 with a 1.89 ERA this year for their respective teams.