Aug. 30, 2012
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Coming off a 2011 season where both the men's and women's cross country squads advanced to the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., last November, big expectations surround both programs as many key veterans return for the 2012 season.
The men's squad took fourth at the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals and 24th at the nationals, while the women's squad finished fifth at regionals and 22nd at nationals. Four of the seven runners that competed at nationals for the men return, with six of the seven returning for the women.
Both teams expect to sprinkle in newcomers to go along with the veterans, which should help lead to improvement at the conference, regional and national levels.
Despite losing three student-athletes that competed at the NCAA Championships last year in Jordan Carlson, Kelly Lynch and Joe Miller, the Irish men's squad looks to have a young and potent team set to compete in 2012.
"We have a chance to be a better cross country team from a year ago despite losing Jordan, Kelly and Joe," said head coach Joe Piane. "We have six to seven runners that didn't compete last year or improved greatly during the track season that could make a difference during cross country this year."
Set to lead the way for the team are a trio of seniors in Jeremy Rae, J.P. Malette and Johnathan Shawel. Rae, who was named both all-BIG EAST and all-region last year, won a national championship during the indoor season with the distance medley relay team. Malette has been a consistent runner in both cross country and track during his time with the Irish, while Shawel overcame an injury that held him out for the entire 2011 cross country season to win a national title with Rae on the DMR team.
Also returning for Notre Dame is Martin Grady, Walter Schafer and DJ Thornton. Grady led the Irish in several races last season and earned all-BIG EAST and all-region accolades. Grady also finished second at the National Catholic Championships. Schafer competed in six of the seven races last season, turning in a fourth-place showing at the National Catholic Championships. Thornton is working on consistency, but showed flashes of being a key asset for the Irish, finishing fifth at the Crusader Invitational and seventh at the National Catholic Championships.
Other upperclassmen that could benefit the team are sophomore Jake Kildoo, senior Jeff MacMillan and sophomore Johnny Fuller. MacMillan and Fuller both improved during the track season, while Kildoo ran at the NACAC Cross Country Championships in Trinidad in March and at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Spain in June.
A trio of talented freshmen look to make an immediate splash for the Irish as well as Timothy Ball, Kevin Durham and Michael Clevenger all are getting their first taste of collegiate running this fall.
Ball was the New Jersey Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year for 2011, while Durham and Clevenger both had successful cross country and track seasons.
"We have 10-13 runners who could easily earn a spot in the top seven this year," said Piane. "We are excited to get the season started and see how these individuals push each other to be better."
Loads of talent return for the Irish as six of the seven runners that ran on the 6K course in Terre Haute will suit up in the blue and gold in 2012.
"The big expectation is for us to get better at the conference, regional and national levels," said head coach Tim Connelly. "We have a lot of individuals that can help the team out this season, which is a good thing. It's a great situation to have 10-13 runners that could fight for a spot in the top seven. It keeps practices spirited and the competition going. They know they have to work hard to keep their position."
Senior Jessica Rydberg returns for the Irish after leading the squad in six of the seven races last season, including winning the National Catholic Championship 5K in September. She also earned all-Great Lakes Region honors after finishing 10th on the 6K course.
"Jessica had a good fall last year, but she can be better," said Connelly. She was still trying to get fit after missing the entire 2010-11 year with injury. She goes out for every race and competes really hard, which helped lead to her success from a year ago. After a good summer, we are expecting her to be ahead of where she was last year."
Fellow senior Rebecca Tracy returns as well for the Irish after an impressive track season that saw her earn second team All-America honors during the outdoor season in the 1,500 meters.
A trio of juniors return for Notre Dame as Alexa Aragon, Kelly Curran and McKinzie Schulz all turned in successful cross country and track seasons a year ago. Aragon ran at the NCAA East Preliminary round during the outdoor track season and Curran led the team at the NCAA Championships last cross country season.
The lone sophomore with NCAA experience is Gabby Gonzales, who had a breakout freshman campaign that witnessed her earn all-region accolades in cross country and a spot at the NCAA East Preliminary round in the 10,000 meters during the outdoor track season.
"All six of those girls had really big improvements during the track season," said Connelly. "To me the best way to have a great cross country season is to have a great track season and to build some momentum going into the summer training."
In addition to the returning six, several other upperclassmen look to make an impact.
Junior Meg Ryan returns after missing the entire 2011 cross country season with an injury. In 2010, Ryan won the National Catholic Championship race.
Sophomore Karen Lesiewicz looks to run in her first race for the Irish after missing all of 2011-12 with an injury. Connelly sees great potential in the Schaumburg, Ill., native now that she is healthy.
Fellow sophomore Emily Frydrych had a breakout track season, scoring points in the 1,000 meters at the BIG EAST Indoor Championships. She also ran well in the 800 and 1,500 meters during the outdoor season.
Connelly is also excited about his freshman class, led by 2011-12 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year Molly Seidel. The Hartland, Wis., native was a four-time Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association First Team All-State selection, went undefeated as a senior, and won her fourth consecutive Division 3 individual state title. She also won the National Foot Locker Cross Country Championships and the Foot Locker Midwest Regional Championships.
Also looking to make an immediate splash in cross country are Dani Aragon and Sydni Meunier. Aragon, who is the younger sister of Alexa, is a standout track competitor having competed in the 800 meters at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain, this summer.
Meunier has never run cross country but was a talented track athlete in high school and has already shown potential in practices this summer.
Overall the women's team sports 24 runners, with three seniors, six juniors, seven sophomores and eight freshmen comprising the 24.
Gone is graduated senior captain Rachel Velarde, who competed at the NCAA Championships last year for the Irish.
The squads will play host to a pair of annual meets and will compete in several elite national competitions in a five-meet regular season that gets underway on August 31.
In addition to the BIG EAST Championships, the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals and the NCAA Championships, the Irish have the possibility of competing in eight meets this season, with seven of them slated for a Friday running.
The Irish, who finished 22nd (women) and 24th (men) at the 2011 NCAA Championships, get their season underway as they have for the last several years with a trip to Valparaiso, Ind., for the Crusader Invitational on August 31.
Notre Dame then returns home to the Notre Dame Golf Course, where they will play host to two long-standing meets in the National Catholic Championships (Sept. 14) and the Notre Dame Invitational (Sept. 28).
The National Catholic Championships has been run every year since 1980 on the men's side and 1984 on the women's side.
A staple since 1956 on the men's side and 1987 on the women's side, the Notre Dame Invitational routinely welcomes in many of the nation's elite programs.
Two Big Ten meets close out the regular season for the Irish as the two squads head to West Lafayette, Ind., on Oct. 5 for the Purdue Invitational and to Madison, Wis., on Oct. 12 for the Wisconsin Invitational. The trip to Wisconsin and the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course will offer the Irish an opportunity to scout out the site of the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals, which are scheduled for Nov. 9.
After a pair of training weeks, Notre Dame heads to the Bronx, N.Y., for the BIG EAST Championship. This year the races will take place at Van Cortlandt Park. Last year, both teams finished sixth, competing against several highly ranked teams.
If the two teams qualify for the NCAA Championships again, they will head to a new location for the first time in nine years, as the national meet heads to Louisville's E.P. `Tom' Sawyer State Park after eight years at Indiana State's LaVern Gibson National Championship Cross Country Course. The men have advanced to nationals 21 out of the last 25 years, while the women have been nine out of the last 13 years.