Sept. 2, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a five-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish cross country teams, with the women coming off a Great Lakes Regional title and 23rd-place finish at last year's NCAA Championships, and the men looking to return to the NCAAs after a one-year absence.
The University of Notre Dame's men's and women's cross country teams head into the 2010 season with experienced runners and a positive attitude. Both teams return several of their top seven runners from the 2009 campaign, in addition to welcoming a talented group of freshmen.
The Irish men lost one key runner from last season, Jake Walker, who was consistently a top finisher for Notre Dame. A two-time all-BIG EAST honoree, he competed in four Great Lakes Regionals and four NCAA Championship meets, qualifying for the NCAA Championships individually his senior year.
"We really only lost one runner and that's Jake Walker. It is a big loss because he was among the best in the region, qualified for NCAA's, was our team captain and our number-one guy," veteran head coach Joe Piane remarks. "It was a major loss, but we are only losing one runner which means we return quite a few kids. Our top cross country runners had great track seasons in the winter and spring," Piane says.
One of the top returnees is Ann Harbor, Mich. native Dan Jackson. A senior, he has been a key contributor each of the last two seasons, running at the BIG EAST championship meet and the Great Lakes Regional each season.
Fellow seniors Ryan Jacobs from Roscoe, Ill. and Paul Springer from Kennett Square, Pa., give the Irish solid experience. Both have run in three BIG EAST championship meets, three Great Lakes Regional races and two NCAA Championships.
A product of Bowling Green, Ohio, Joe Miller will lead a talented group of junior runners this season. As a freshman, Miller earned all-BIG EAST honors, finished 20th at the Great Lakes Regional meet and qualified for the NCAA Championships. Kelly Lynch out of Spokane, Wash., and Johnathan Shawel from Placentia, Calif., are among runners to watch during the campaign.
The Irish men are welcoming a talented group of freshman to the squad this year. One of the top rookies is Walter Schafer (Centennial, Colo.) ran in the World Cross Country Championships and has posted a time of 4:10 in the mile. D.J. Thornton, (Rahway, NJ) was clocked in 4:09 for his mile and Martin Grady (Burr Ridge, Ill.) finished 13th at the Foot Locker National Meet.
"My hope is that we will run the courses more aggressively this year," Piane says. "We need to get more involved and engaged during our races."
On the women's side, five of the top seven runners will return. The team's key loss will be Lindsey Ferguson as she left big shoes to fill. Ferguson, who was a top-five finisher for Notre Dame throughout her career, earned three BIG EAST all-conference honors, Great Lakes Regional accolades and her first All-American citation last year at the NCAA Championships after finishing 30th in the meet.
Head coach Tim Connelly who is entering his 23rd season with the Irish, realizes the loss of Ferguson will be significant, but looks to several individuals who will be found prominently in the Irish lineup.
The women have qualified for the NCAA Championships each of the past two seasons, but Connelly and his team is entering the campaign with a greater goal in mind.
"Our goal this season isn't to just get to the NCAA's. We have done that two straight years," Connelly says. "Our goal is to get there and run well. We have an experienced group of returners with experience and maturity to help us get better."
A Maple City, Mich. native, senior Marissa Treece, has been a top runner in each of his three seasons. If she utilizes her experience and maintains consistency, she will be a vital part of the success of the Irish this fall.
Sophomore Jessica Rydberg (Pinetop, Ariz) was hurt early in her cross country fall, but ran at the BIG EAST, Great Lakes Regional and NCAA Championships. She had a great regional meet, finishing 10th overall, to help the Irish to the regional crown and was the second Irish runner to cross the finish line at the NCAA Championships. Rydberg had an outstanding track season and finished with All-American honors in the 10,000-meter at the NCAA Outdoor meet.
Connelly expects senior Erica Watson (Noblesville, Ind.) to be among the top runners this season.
"Erica has been in our top five and is a really solid kid," Connelly says. "She had a good outdoor season, ran at the regional meet and will be somewhere in the mix this season."
In addition to the returnees, the Irish welcome several talented first-year runners. Kelly Curran from Bloomington, Ill., is a two-time cross country state champion and two-mile champion. Meg Ryan from Fairfield, Conn. was a Foot Locker finalist in cross country and a state mile champion in Connecticut. Other top prospects include Mackenzie Schultz out of Naperville, Ill. and Alexa Aragon, from Billings, Mont. was one of the top cross country runners in her home state.
Both the Irish men and women will face challenging schedules during their campaigns in pursuit of earning NCAA Championship berths.
Beginning at the Valparaiso Crusader Open this Friday, Sept. 3, prior to returning to Notre Dame to run the National Catholic Championships on Friday, Oct. 17, followed by the Notre Dame Invitational on Friday, Oct. 1.
The National Catholic Championships will host several prominent Catholic institutions to the Notre Dame Golf Course. Through the years, the men have clinched 20 titles, winning 10 straight titles from 1995-2004. In 1984 the women's race was added, and since then, the Irish have claimed 16 crowns.
The Notre Dame Invitational welcomes several top-notch institutions to its 55th invitational at the Notre Dame Golf Course. Alex Wilson, former Irish head coach, started what is now one of the nation's largest and oldest intercollegiate cross country meets. The women began their race in 1987. This year's race features some of the nation's elite cross country teams such as Washington, Arizona State, Villanova and Princeton.
"The Notre Dame Invitational is a very competitive meet," Connelly says. "If we are going to be competitive, we will find out pretty quick at this meet."
Two weeks later on Saturday, Oct. 16th, the Irish travel to Terre Haute, Ind. for the Pre-National Meet, followed by the BIG EAST Championships on Saturday, Oct. 30th in Syracuse, N.Y. Both the men and women finished sixth at the competitive league meet last year.
Piane believes the BIG EAST is the product of the nation's best runners.
"The BIG EAST is one of the best cross country conferences in the country," Piane says. "Historically, the best middle distance and distance schools in the nation are Villanova, Georgetown and Providence. Louisville has made great strides and Syracuse is putting an unbelievable amount of effort into distance runners. Including Notre Dame, there are six dominant schools who can compete nationally. One year, I believe we had five BIG EAST schools in the top nine at the NCAA Championship meet. I will take the BIG EAST and put it up against any conference in the country and it will always look extremely favorable."
The Irish will then travel to Rochester, Mich. for the Greak Lakes Regional meet. Last year the women took the regional crown, advancing them to the NCAA's.
The NCAA Championship meet will be held on Monday, Nov. 22nd in Terre Haute, Ind.