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The most meaningful track and field victory of Caroline Alcorta’s life should not have happened. Her distance medley relay team, a heralded group favored to win, found itself in seventh place when Alcorta embarked on the final leg of the DMR race at Penn Relays last Thursday. The West Springfield senior had mounted some nice comebacks before, but spotting the field a full 100 meters was just too generous against elite competition on the national stage.

“I kind of thought we were done for at that point,” said Alcorta, who estimates she was 22 seconds behind the leader when she grabbed the baton for the final 1600 meters. “I said, ‘I’ll still try to run as fast as I can, but if I don’t catch the leaders then that’s fine.’”

Even Alcorta’s coach had lost hope.

“My wife was yelling at me, ‘No, you be positive! You never know. Caroline can do anything,’” West Springfield coach Chris Pellegrini said. “I saw a couple of the girls in front of her, and if they run like they could potentially run, I thought we’d be in a lot of trouble.”

Instead of panicking, Alcorta bought her time, gaining steadily on the girl in front of her toward the end of her first lap. That’s when her sliver of daylight began shining brightly.

“I saw how strung out everyone was and I realized how spaced apart they were, so I thought I could try picking people off and booking it at some point,” she said. “I tried holding back for the first two [laps], and then I got a little excited and started trying to catch them.”

As the fourth and final lap approached, the crowd at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field rose to its feet to behold Alcorta’s improbable surge to the front. Like a video game character with a turbo boost, she picked up speed with each passing meter, her lead growing by the second. By the time she crossed the finish line, you almost needed to squint to spot the next runner rounding the bend.

Alcorta’s closing clip of 4 minutes 46.46 seconds allowed the West Springfield quartet to finish nine seconds ahead of runner-up Haddonfield Memorial High School of New Jersey. Katie Kennedy, Michelle Lipka and Reagan Bustamante contributed to a final time of 11:53.07, the best mark of any girls team in the U.S. this year.

“I’ve seen some comebacks, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comeback like that at Penn Relays,” Pellegrini said. “I can’t recall someone making up that kind of ground in that big of a race.”

Alcorta was the only runner to hit her PR down the stretch, a feat made all the more impressive by the circumstances surrounding it. After delivering the school’s first national championship last spring in the 4x800 relay and then doing it again at national indoors this winter, West Springfield carried the weight of great expectations before Thursday’s race even began. Moreover, a rule forbidding participation in both the DMR and the 4x800 meant everyone in the race was fresh, so Alcorta wasn’t exactly picking off opponents weary from a long day of competition.

“You can’t underestimate how difficult it is to get a baton, not be around people, and to be asked to run a mile at your best in adverse circumstances,” Pellegrini said. “The thing about Caroline is that she can run her 4:46 from virtually anywhere at any time. She proved that she can run her time no matter what, and the other girls in the race proved that they couldn’t.”

The 120th running of the Penn Relays offered high school competitors only eight wagon wheels, the enormous round plaques awarded to the champions. Five of those went to Jamaica, while the other three stayed here in the U.S. The fact that one of them currently sits in the Student Activities office at West Springfield High leaves Alcorta with little doubt about where this accomplishment ranks in a career full of them.

“It has to rank first,” she said. “We all didn’t run our best, but to come out on top was a pretty big deal for us. A lot of us may never be at Penn again. Penn Relays don’t really come around very often.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com