Jan. 12, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men's & women's track & field teams, with the men looking to build upon BIG EAST runner-up finishes in both the 2011 indoor and outdoor seasons, and the women also seeking to return to the top of the conference ladder where they have resided with great regularity throughout the BIG EAST era.
High expectations surround the Notre Dame track and field program entering the 2011-12 campaign as it looks to return to the top of the mountain in the BIG EAST Conference.
With fresh faces and seasoned veterans dotting both teams, the men's and women's squads eagerly await their opportunities to battle it out with the best the BIG EAST has to offer.
MEN'S TRACK AND FIELD
Fresh off a pair of second-place finishes at last season's BIG EAST Indoor and Outdoor Championships, the Irish return a veteran group, plus several talented newcomers, as they look to take the next step in returning to the top of the BIG EAST.
Before last year's pair of second-place showings (in the BIG EAST indoor and outdoor meets), Notre Dame had won the 2010 indoor crown, and three straight outdoor titles. Despite losing some talented individuals off last year's squad, head coach Joe Piane is excited about the prospects for the 2011-12 season.
"We graduated a lot of talented performers from last year's squad," said Piane. "However, we feel like we brought in a pretty good group to help fill their shoes. The men's team should be solid all the way through the lineup from sprints to distance and all the field events."
Sprint and hurdle coach Alan Turner expects a strong season out of his 400-meter runners and hurdlers with sophomore Patrick Feeney leading the way. Feeney won both the indoor and outdoor BIG EAST 400 titles last year and qualified for the NCAA Regionals as a freshman and is back for his second year in the program.
Also expected to help out in the 400 is incoming freshman Christopher Giesting. Last year, Giesting turned in the ninth fastest time in the country for a high school runner in the event.
In the hurdle events, sophomore Jarrod Buchanon returns after just missing out on the finals of the 110 and 400 hurdles at last year's BIG EAST Outdoor Championships. Buchanon and sophomore Bryce Wood are expected to provide a strong one-two punch in the hurdle events.
The middle distance and distance portion of the track and field squad is stocked full of talent and has high expectations for the upcoming season.
Four returning middle distance runners advanced to the NCAA East Regionals last season including seniors Kelly Lynch (3,000m steeplechase) and Johnathan Shawel (1,500m) and juniors J.P. Malette and Jeremy Rae (1,500m).
Last year at the BIG EAST Indoor Championships, Shawel won the 1,000, Rae was victorious in the mile run and J.P. Malette finished third in the mile. Senior Jordan Carlson placed second in both the 1,000 and 3,000-meter runs.
At the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships, Rae, Shawel and Malette all placed in the top five in the 1,500m run, with Rae winning the event and Shawel finishing second.
In years past, Notre Dame has racked up huge number of points off the relay events, and the upcoming season looks like more of the same. Key members of the 4x400 relay team that finished fourth at the BIG EAST Indoors and sixth at the BIG EAST Outdoors return as do members of the 4x800 relay that won both the indoor and outdoor crowns. These include Shawel and Rae. The 4x100 relay team that finished fifth at the BIG EAST Indoor Championships and the distance medley relay team that finished fourth at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships also return key members.
Last season several newcomers and underclassman finished within a few spots of scoring or earning all-conference honors at the BIG EAST Championships. Now a year older, the Irish expect these now-veterans to score big points at the conference championship meets.
The Irish will need some other throwers to step up however, as they lost a trio of seniors in Greg Davis, John Belcher and Denes Veres that scored a combined 39 points in the BIG EAST meets last season.
Notre Dame has a pair of experienced heptathlon and decathlon competitors in junior Dean Odegard and sophomore Alex Bavis. Last year Odegard placed four in the decathlon and ninth in the heptathlon, while Bavis finished seventh in the heptathlon and fifth in the decathlon.
WOMEN'S TRACK AND FIELD
After finishing a disappointing eighth and 10th, respectively, at the BIG EAST Indoor and Outdoor Championships, the Notre Dame women's track and field team looks to assemble a team that could crack the upper tier of the BIG EAST as several talented freshmen take their first shot at conference rivals.
Piane, as well as all the coaches, expects big things out of this 2011-12 group.
"We brought in a very good freshman class," says Piane. "It is evident by how many will be mentioned in this preview. We didn't graduate much at all from last year. I think we will be significantly better across the board."
The women's sprint and hurdles group boasts a young but talented group that welcomes back three regional qualifiers as well as an elite freshman class.
Sophomore Michelle Brown barely missed earning all-BIG EAST accolades in the 400m, but did advance to the NCAA East Regionals in the event. Fellow sophomore Nevada Sorenson advanced to regionals in the 100 hurdles, while junior Megan Yanik competed at the regionals in the same event.
Turner is both quick to point out a potentially superstar duo in freshman twins Kayla and Jade Barber. Kayla, who was ranked in the top-10 nationally last high school season in the 300 and 400 hurdles and the long jump, will have an immediate impact in a variety of events. Her sister Jade was nationally ranked in the 400 meters last year and will look to become an immediate contributor in the event.
Another freshman that could step up for the Irish in the 400 hurdles and 500-meter run is Michelle Rotondo. Turner was quick to praise her endurance, which could make her an asset in the 500 meters.
Another strength of the women's squad looks to be the middle distance and distance teams, who each return talent from a year ago. Sophomores Alexa Aragon and Kelly Curran and junior Rebecca Tracy each went to the NCAA East Regionals in the 1,500m run last season. At the BIG EAST Indoor Championships, Tracy won the indoor mile, while Aragon and Curran scored in the mile and 1,000m, respectively. Sophomore McKinzie Schulz also scored in the 1,000. Tracy also scored in the 1,500m at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships.
In the longer distances, senior Rachel Velarde returns after advancing to regionals in the 10,000 meters. The Irish also get back junior Jessica Rydberg, who was injured as a sophomore, but was an All-American in the 10,000m as a freshman.
Turner is excited about the potential of the 4x400-meter relay team with the addition of the Barber twins and the return of Brown and Sorenson.
"The 4x400 relay team should have a good shot at competing for a BIG EAST title and a shot at the NCAAs if everyone can stay healthy," says Turner.
In other relay events, the Irish return plenty of veterans that helped the 4x800 and distance medley relays teams to fourth place finishes at the BIG EAST Championships last season.
In addition to her skills in the pentathlon and heptathlon, senior Maddie Buttinger has proven herself as a consistent high jumper, placing sixth in the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships last year.
Other performers looking to score points for the Irish this season include pole vaulters Chrissy Finkel and Kelly Burke, Vivien Devaney, who throws the discus, and Madeline Casanova and Mason Bashaw, who compete in the throwing events.
The Irish return Buttinger for her final season in the Notre Dame gold and blue. Buttinger has been a star for the Irish thus far, earning second place in the heptathlon at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships all three years. She also has finished third as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore in the pentathlon at the BIG EAST Indoor Championships. In addition, Buttinger has competed at the NCAA Championships the last two years in the heptathlon.
The Meyo Track plays host to four meets during the indoor season including the Blue & Gold Invitational (Dec. 2), Notre Dame Invitational (Jan. 21), Meyo Invitational (Feb. 3-4) and Alex Wilson Invitational (March 2-3). The Meyo Invitational, including the famous Meyo Mile race, will be held for the 26th time.
After the Blue & Gold home meet to open the season, the Irish compete in the GVSU Holiday Open on Dec. 16-17. Following winter break, Notre Dame returns to Allendale, Mich., for the GVSU Bob Eubanks Open, which is slated for Jan. 13-14. The Notre Dame Invitational on Jan. 21 and the Indiana Relays on Jan. 27-28 close out the first month of the 2012 calendar.
The final two meets leading up to the BIG EAST Indoor Championships take place during the first two weekends of February as the Irish host the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 3-4 and then travel to the GVSU Big Meet on Feb. 10-11.
The BIG EAST Indoor Championships are scheduled for Feb. 18-19 in New York, N.Y., with St. John's playing host this season. Last year the men's squad placed second, while the women's team finished eighth.
The final two indoor meets of the season will be the Alex Wilson Invitational held at the Meyo Track on March 2-3 and the NCAA Indoor Championships from March 9-10, in Nampa, Idaho. To qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships, student-athletes must meet a qualifying standard that is set for each event.
The outdoor season gets underway on the weekend of March 22-24 with a pair of meets in the Alabama Relays in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the Victor Lopez Invitational in Houston, Texas. The following weekend the Irish head to West Lafayette, Ind., for the Purdue Mike Poehlein Invitational to close out the month of March.
April is a full month of meets with the Stanford Invitational opening the month on April 6-7, followed by the Louisville Border Battle on April 14. The next weekend sees the Irish compete in two separate meets, the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., and the Polytan Invitational in Bloomington, Ind. The month closes out with the Drake Relays and Hillsdale Gina Relays from April 26-28.
The BIG EAST Outdoor Championships will be hosted by South Florida this year on May 4-6 in Tampa, Fla. Last season the Irish men claimed the second-place trophy, while the women finished 10th.
Following the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships, Notre Dame student-athletes will have one final opportunity to qualify for the NCAA East First Round, when they compete at the GVSU Last Chance Meet in Allendale, Mich., on May 11-12.
The NCAA East First Round will be held in Jacksonville, Fla., and hosted by the University of North Florida. To qualify for the East Regionals, student-athletes must be in the top 40 in the East in their respective event.
Individuals that advance past the East Regionals will compete at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 6-9.