An overlooked champion at Villanova

Jon Albert

Women’s cross-country Head Coach Gina Procaccio sits in her Jake Nevin Field House office, her small frame seeming even smaller behind the large trophy that sits at the front of her desk. Depending on where you sit in her office, it is almost impossible to see her at all behind the 2-feet tall award. That trophy is the 2009 women’s cross-country National Championship trophy.  

Make no mistake, Procaccio is a champion. And while this year’s women’s cross-country team deserves a tremendous amount of respect and praise, Procaccio’s journey is also one that should be honored, because so often, champions are right in front of us, but we simply cannot see them.

Born in nearby Drexel Hill, Procaccio knew about Villanova cross-country while in high school, but it was the men’s team, not the women’s team, that garnered the accolades. 

“They didn’t even start the women’s program until 1977,” Procaccio said. “But you always knew about the men. You always knew about Villanova and the Penn Relays. Ever since I started running in the ninth grade, I always knew about Villanova.” 

But sometimes what is right in front of us doesn’t seem to be the best choice. Procaccio decided that because of the fledgling status of Villanova’s women’s program, the University of Florida was a better choice. 

But after running poorly for three years at Florida, Procaccio knew she needed a change. She asked good friend and Villanova’s newly-appointed women’s cross-country coach Marty Stern if he wanted another runner, and she soon returned to the greater Philadelphia area for her senior season.

Procaccio’s single season at Villanova was literally one for the record books. During the 1987 NCAA Championships, she ran the leadoff leg on the 4 x 800 meter relay team that placed first and set a world record. She was also named an All-American. 

“We didn’t just want to win,” Procaccio said. “We really wanted to break the records.” 

Looking back, Procaccio credits her success at Villanova to the great history of the program. 

“You put that [Villanova] singlet on, and you felt that you were expected to win,” Procaccio said. “But for me, that wasn’t pressure, it was a good thing. This is what I was expected to do, and I felt like it was easier because of the pride.”

Building upon that Villanova pride was the goal for Procaccio when she started to run professionally after graduation. In her usual event, the 1,500 meter run, Procaccio was able to finish third in the U.S. National Championships. But the individual championship that eluded her in college was there for the taking if she changed events, to the more endurance-based 5,000 meter run.

 “I felt like I had a lot of speed, and if I could train hard and build up endurance, I knew that I could outkick anybody in the 5,000 meter.” 

In 1995, Procaccio was able to finally achieve her goal of becoming a National Champion, winning the 5,000 meter run at the U.S. Championships. 

Soon after graduating, Procaccio joined the coaching ranks. After spending a year apiece at Tennessee and Georgetown, Procaccio was asked if she wanted to become the assistant coach at Villanova. 

“I feel like I didn’t have the best coaching situations in my life [at Florida],” Procaccio said. “I think that all of my experiences led me to think that coaching was something that I could do.”

One person who felt that Procaccio had all the makings of a great coach is current men’s cross-country Head Coach and fellow Villanova alum Marcus O’Sullivan. 

“She’s a very good technical coach, and that’s very important,” O’Sullivan said. “She’s got a very good feel for making sure that the athlete is constantly improving and never stepping back.”

Unfortunately, Procaccio was about to take her own step back. On Oct. 23, 1995, Procaccio’s career took an unexpected and unfortunate turn. 

“I was someone who never got injured, but that morning I woke up, and there was just something wrong with my knee,” she said. “I went to 26 different doctors, but nobody could help me.” 

The injury could not have come at a worse time for Procaccio, who was training for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

In Procaccio’s own words, the injury was “devastating.” Procaccio was ranked No. 1 in the country in the 5,000 meter run, and would have been a medal threat in Atlanta. 

But as Procaccio puts it, “In hindsight now, I realize that those experiences made me a better coach. It has given me a lot of experience in terms of helping my athletes. They’ll come to me with something wrong, and I can offer good insight into keeping them healthy.” 

Few people can understand that statement better than one of her All-Americans, junior Sheila Reid. Reid was nursing injuries for most of the season, but Procaccio was always there to give her the support that she needed. 

“She cares a lot about the girls on this team,” Reid said. “When I was injured she took the time to oversee my pool workouts every single day, sometimes even getting in the pool with me. I believe everything Gina tells me because it’s coming from a place of experience and honesty.”

Procaccio’s insight into the ups and downs that an athlete will experience over the course of a season was one of the keys to the success of this year’s team. Its entire season led up to the national championships, where they played the underdog role to the Washington Huskies. 

“[Procaccio] has always outperformed her ranking,” O’Sullivan said. “This year’s team was ranked second going into the national championships, and look what happened. She’s got a really good skill of getting the runners where they need to be, when they need to be there.” 

The memories from this season, in the forms of pictures and notes on Procaccio’s desk, won’t leave her office, but the trophy soon will in order to be displayed for all to see in the Jake Nevin Field House trophy case. The journey of that trophy exemplifies the path that Procaccio and her team will now have to face. Track season has already started, and the women’s team just won the Big East Indoor Championships. But Procaccio and her team are focused on winning another national championship. 

O’Sullivan put it best: “They were the underdog and they were feeling anticipation, now they are champions, and they’re going to feel the pressure to repeat that success.” 

Underdog. Anticipation. Pressure. Success. These are all terms that Procaccio knows well. If she can channel those four terms again this spring and lead her girls to another championship, then she may start needing a bigger desk.