Rich Caton, his mouth open and his head bobbing as he gasped for air down the stretch, fought off Rutgers' Jim Westman by a step today to give Georgetown the 4x800-meter championship at the 87th Penn Relays.

Caton turned in a 1:47.5 anchor as he brought the Hoyas from far back to their first Championship of America success since they took the four-mile even in 1966. Caton was preceded by Kevin Byrne, John Gregorek and freshman Brian McNelis, who kept Georgetown in contention with a 1:50 third leg.

"I thought I ran poorly yesterday and I was upset about it," Caton said. "I thought about it last night and I came out here today to run as hard as I could.

"Rounding the last turn I thought I had nothing left, but I just put my head down and gave it all I had. I was expecting (Villanova's Sydney) Maree to come, but I never saw him."

It is with good reason that Georgetown runners expect to hear Maree's footsteps. His great anchor 1,600-meter leg overcame the Hoyas Friday in the distance medley, and earlier today he ran a 3:40.2 anchor 1,500 to give Villanova the 4x1,500 championship, in which Georgetown wound up third. In the 4x800, however, Maree received the baton too far back to threaten.

Georgetown won in 7:19.64, followed by Rutgers in 7:19.83, Richmond in 7:20.87 and Villanova in 7:21.69.

Maree had to battle past Frank O'Mara of Arkansas in the last 20 meters to bring Villanova the 4x1,500-meter championship. The South African, in wiping out a 35-yard deficit, pulled up close to O'Mara after 400 meters. He stayed behind until the last lap and then ran down the Razorback, who kicked with 300 meters remaining and kept it close to the finish.

Georgetown was third most of the way, with Gregorek moving up behind O'Mara and Maree on the anchor leg and then fading on the final lap. Gregorek was timed in 3:45.4, after Byrne had run a 3:45.3 third leg.

Benita Fitzgerald, the Tennessee sophomore from Woodbridge, Va., set a Relays record of 13.52 seconds in edging Candy Young of Fairleigh Dickinson in the college women's 100-meter hurdles. Fitzgerald came back five minutes later to place second in the 100 meters behind Chandra Cheeseborough of Tennessee State.

Renaldo Nehemiah made his first appearance of the outdoor season, running the Olympic Development 100 meters rather than his hurdles specialty. The former Maryland star placed third in 10.69, as Morgan State graduate Neville Hodge of the Virgin Islands was the winner in 10.50, followed by veteran Steve Riddick in 10.58.

Tennessee won three of the eight major relay titles, breezing in the 4x100, edging Seton Hall in the 4x200 and nipping Houston in a photo-finish shuttle hurdles.

Southern Methodist also was a triple winner in its first visit here. The Mustangs took the sprint medley on a fine 1:46.2 anchor 800 by Kenyan Sammy Koskei, and had two individual champions, Michael Carter with a Relays record of 66 feet 2 inches in the shot put and Keith Connor with 52-4 1/4 in the triple jump.

Cold, windy weather kept most times out of record range and the two invitational mile events were disappointing. Jan Merrill took the women's race in 4:35.7, and Tom Byers won the men's event, named for the late Jumbo Elliott, in 4:00.69, Elliott, track coach at Villanova for 47 years, died last month.

H.D. Woodson of Washington, D.C., finished third in the high school championship 4x100 relay, but the Warriors had no need to apologize for their excellent 42.18 clocking. The winner, Camperdown of Jamaica, ran 40.90, a Relays record that would have been good enough for fifth in the college final. Oxon Hill (Md.) High School won a consolation event in 42.41.

Oxon Hill was seventh in the championship 4x400 relay with a time of 3:18.4, with Jim Greene anchoring in 48.2. The Clippers ran 3:19.5 in their morning heat. Brian Garland of Bladensburg had the best split of the day by a Washington-area runner, anchoring in 47.9 as the Mustangs clocked 3:24.4 T.C. Williams was timed in 3:20.8, H.D. Woodson in 3:23.8 and Meade in 3:25.0.

Linda Portasik, a graduate of Fort Hunt High School, ran the third leg for Tennessee's victorious women's 4x800-meter team, which set a Relays record of 8:38.1. Virginia was third and Georgetown fifth.

Ken Glover of Eastern Kentucky cleared 7-1 in the high jump to upset Nvay's Leo Williams, second at 7-0 1/4, the same height cleared by fifth-place Scott Dunham of George Mason.

Solomon Chebor of Fairleigh Dickinson took the steeplechase in 8:38.1. Navy's Bill Kovach was fourth in 8:50.5.

David Spivey of Auburn won the pole vault at 17-3. Maryland's Dennis Lentz, Vince Reilly and Jon Warner were 3-4-5, all at 16-5.