Oct. 18, 1997
1997-98 Season Outlook
After five top-10 finishes in the NCAA championships in the 1990s, Notre Dame's men's cross country team looks to make it six in 1997. Gone from the ninth-place team in 1996 are three of the top four runners but, despite these losses, head coach Joe Piane looks to reload his squad for yet another high finish at the NCAA meet.
"Everyone anticipates our having a down year because we graduated three guys from the top 10 in our district," says Piane, who enters his 23rd year as head coach. "If we are going to have another great year, we are going to need the runners we have coming back to step it up."
After placing third in their first BIG EAST championship race in 1995, Notre Dame ended up fourth in 1996. Heading into the meat of the 1996 schedule, the Irish regrouped and, for the third time in the 1990s, Notre Dame won the District IV meet, taking first out of the 34 teams in the competition. Nine days later, the Irish placed ninth at the NCAA meet in Tucson, Ariz.
"Last year we had one down meet," says Piane. "Other than that one meet, we had a great year. It is not unrealistic for us to have an equally great year in 1997."
Leading the Irish hopes for another successful season will be senior All-American Jason Rexing (Pickerington, Ohio) who was the team's top finisher at the 1996 NCAA cross country championships. He crossed the line first among Irish runners in five of seven meets a year ago and took second overall at both the BIG EAST championship and the District IV meet.
"If Jason duplicates last year's performances, we will be very happy," says Piane. "The only room for improvement is at the NCAA meet where he can run better than he did last year. Jason is also capable of winning the BIG EAST meet. He is a great leader who has it all in perspective."
Beyond Rexing, Piane is looking to a corps of returning runners to fill the holes in the lineup vacated by All-American Derek Seiling, Matt Althoff and Joe Dunlop.
Piane points to seniors Mike Conway (Springfield, Va.) and Scott Grace (Oakland, Mich.) to join Rexing among the top runners on the squad. Conway ran a season-best time of 25:05 at the '96 Notre Dame Invitational and placed 15th at the '96 National Catholic meet.
Grace posted similar results in the five races he ran in 1996. His best time of 25:01 came at the Notre Dame Invitational, and his best finish was ninth at the National Catholic meet. He proved he can become one of the top runners when he ran the 10,000 meters in 30:44.38 in the 1997 outdoor track season. Senior Jim Pilla (Red Banks, N.J.) is also capable of cracking the lineup.
Another runner Piane is pointing toward is junior Ryan Blaney (Toms River, N.J.). Among his five races in 1996, Blaney ran best at the Notre Dame Invitational with his time of 25:37. He also participated in the BIG EAST meet and should capitalize on that experience in 1997.
"We are very confident in what Ryan Blaney, Mike Conway and Scott Grace can do," says Piane. "They will be effective in filling out our lineup."
Junior Antonio Arce (Palmdale, Calif.) was among the top seven finishers a year ago, including at the BIG EAST meet, and should give the Irish solid contributions once again. Arce brings international experience after representing the United States in the World Junior Cross Country Championships in South Africa in March 1996.
"Antonio has greatly improved his consistency and now we are looking for him to improve his finishes," says Piane. "We think he will develop into one of our top seven this year."
Junior Tim Engelhardt (East Syracuse, N.Y.) was the fifth Irish runner to finish at the '96 NCAA meet and was second among returning runners. He ran in seven races as a sophomore and finished 30th and 31st at the BIG EAST championships and at the District IV meet. He ran his fastest time of the year of 24:44 at the BIG EAST meet.
Another junior, Ryan Maxwell (Staten Island, N.Y.), started the 1996 season strong, winning the Buckeye Invitational in his first meet of the year and finishing sixth at the National Catholic. The Irish will be looking for Maxwell to continue similar results throughout the 1997 season.
"Tim and Ryan will be very important parts of the lineup," says Piane. "Tim will need to improve 10 spots in his finishes at the big meets, and Ryan needs to run well more regularly to contribute like we are expecting."
Sophomore Sean McManus (Hernando, Fla.) broke into the lineup as a freshman and ran in seven meets, the most of any freshman. The experience he gained in running in the BIG EAST, District IV and NCAA meets should aid his development in his second year.
"Sean has a lot of experience and a world of potential," says Piane. "We are really looking for him to blossom into a great runner."
As a freshman in 1996, sophomore Rob Lythgoe (Lester, Pa.) showed the potential to develop into a contributor with his impressive performances in four meets.
Piane is looking toward a trio of freshmen to form the nucleus of future teams, not unlike the Althoff-Dunlop-Seiling combination. Anthony Alt (Waverly, Neb.), Ted Higgins (Naperville, Ill.) and Ryan Shay (Central Lake, Mich.) enter Notre Dame after standout high school careers. Alt won the state cross country championship twice and won numerous state track titles. Higgins led Illinois to first place at the Mid-East cross country championships with his third-place finish. Shay won four Michigan cross country titles, a first in boy's high school cross country in Michigan.
"Ultimately, Anthony, Ted and Ryan can be as good or better than our 1996 seniors," says Piane. "They are all coming in with better times, but we can't necessarily rely on freshmen to get the job done this year."
While these freshmen comprise the future of Notre Dame cross country, Piane is quite certain of the success of the present squad.
"We have the potential to contend once again for the BIG EAST title and could have as many as five runners finish in the top 25 at the district meet," says Piane. "If we do that, we have a shot for another return to the NCAA championships."